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8 May 2014

Ghosts in the Lecture Room: Connoisseurship and the Making, Appraising, Replicating and Undoing of Art’s Images

On the 3rd of May, the Mellon Centre hosted a lively conference on the divisive subject of art connoisseurship – “The Educated Eye?”, now available on Webinar (http://new.livestream.com/accounts/7709097/connoisseurshipnow). Yesterday, a three-day congress opened at the Hague on “Authentication in Art” (7-9 May) carrying the subtitle “What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…” A small ground-breaking exhibition with bearing on the two conferences (“Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess” – see below and Figs. 1 and 2) is running at the Soane Museum until May 31st.

Curating the Future

The question mark in the Mellon Centre’s conference title, reflects persisting antipathies to connoisseurship, which practice/discipline/pose nonetheless shows signs of rehabilitation. The conference proved admirably even-handed “ideologically” but somewhat constricted in its composition and terms of engagement.

The first speaker, Dr Stephen Deuchar, a former director of Tate Britain who has followed a former chairman of the Tate’s board (David Verey) into the Art Fund’s management, might be taken to represent the official modernist/progressivist museum world establishment. In his paper, “Connoisseurship Now: Some Thoughts”, Dr Deuchar disclosed that the Art Fund no longer confines itself to helping museums buy great works of art that might otherwise be lost to the nation, and now, for example, has contributed “generously” towards something involving the conceptualist Martin Creed (who turns lights on and off), even though no object will be acquired. Gifting this munificence to the Tate required Deuchar (and, perhaps, his chairman?) to step aside from the trustees’ deliberations.

There were two problems with Deuchar’s position. First, in espousing a Connoisseurship of The New-and-the-Forthcoming, the curator effectively operates blind in bandit territory. As the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has pointed out, it takes time to evaluate new art, we cannot yet know how it will compare with other art that will shortly follow, or with other yet-to-be-seen contemporary art. Second, his position is old hat and inadvisable: in the 1960s and the 1970s critics championed contemporary art not on quality but on the degree to which it “challenged” existing art practices. So-called “New Activities” were heavily promoted by such critics and curators as Richard Cork and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, the Whitechapel Gallery and, for the last twenty-six years, the Tate. With the dismantling of quality as the principal criterion of judgement, and with the aid of the state-funded, respectability-conferring Arts Council, new activities soon became official activities, leaving most fine art practices and practitioners marginalised. Few noticed that “fine art” had cut itself off from related design and craft activities, and from its own history, to become a cosseted licensed playground where rules were the property of “artists” who played by no rules.

Culturally determinist Marxist art historians (like John Berger and, for a while, Peter Fuller), had gone further; had become more mystical and taken to praising art that they judged to have “anticipated the future”. Insofar as art might ever be said to do such a thing, it could only be seen to have done so in retrospect. When asked to comment on the significance of the French Revolution, the connoisseur of history, Mao Tse Tung, replied, “It’s too soon to say”.

The New Art History

The Mellon conference pitted (trade) chalk against (museum) cheese with Dr Bendor Grosvenor of the Philip Mould gallery and Dr Martin Myrone, a Tate curator and champion of the New Art History which pursues the socially signifcant in favour of the aesthetically desirable (“The Limit of Connoisseurship”). In the course of his conceptually suave paper, “Why Connoisseurship Matters”, Dr Grosvenor made two startling disclosures. First, having just seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, he now appreciates that the critics he had held to be “myopic” – were right all along: Michelangelo’s work has indeed been ruined. Second, that he stands behind restorers to prevent them from destroying glazes on Van Dyck paintings. (See Figs. 12a to 15.)

Dr Myrone declared allegiance to the New Art History where the social has routed the aesthetic. The resulting knock-about reminded this observer of days on the New Left in the late 1960s when Kim Howells, a rebellious Hornsey College of Art student (but later a New Labour government junior minister), wanted all potentially saleable object-based art to be outlawed – unlike the “democratising” mass medium of TV in which he was dabbling. When we asked Howells how he regarded Goya’s Horrors of War etchings, he replied that, although in sympathy with the works’ politics, the fact that they were printed on paper, “which is a capitalist commodity”, meant that they, too, would have to go. Dr Howells later grew up artistically and, as a visiting minister to the Tate, left a rude comment on a Turner Prize exhibition. Soon after, he lost his place in government.

Parts and Wholes

The afternoon session paired Spike Bucklow, the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s Senior Research Scientist (“Connoisseurship, technical knowledge and conservation”), and the British Museum’s head of prints and drawings, Hugo Chapman (“Dodging the label connoisseur from Christie’s to the British Museum”). Mr Chapman told how, when working in trade (Christie’s), he had been advised to describe himself as “an expert” rather than a connoisseur. It seems that the public can more easily forgive mistakes made by the former. Chapman told a story about a librarian who once hid a key drawing from an artist’s box when showing it to a scholar, and then, when duly reviewing the scholar’s book, professed himself astonished that no mention had been made of the said drawing.

The Hamilton Kerr conservator opted to address small things because “fragments are easier than wholes”, while the embarrassed-connoisseur attempted (more sensibly) to make artistic sense of the whole effects of drawings, and to understand, thereby, how they were executed. Dr Bucklow first showed how eloquently cracks on paintings can testify to a picture’s age, medium, underlying support, country of origin and so on. Having thus demonstrated an evidently usefully diagnostic tool (a kind of Connoisseurship of Cracks), he dismantled his own edifice by demonstrating how the vagaries of individual works’ histories and compositions so complicate the system as to render it effectively useless.

Mr Chapman, while conceding the very great difficulties of making sensible identifications of authorship in drawings, described how he tried to establish Michelangelo’s authorship of a drawing by considering its overall relationships and effects. In a nod towards Myrone’s position, he conceded that because many works in collections are ephemera, it would be futile to attempt to establish authorship of every piece of paper, even though such works often have great social significance and interest.

Salvage Operation

In the final paper (“New Connoisseurship, Old Europe, and the Future of Art history”), Professor Liz Prettejohn, head of York University’s Department of Art History, made a spirited attempt to retain a still-vital discipline that might be free of the more toxic ingredients of past connoisseurship practices. Prof. Prettejohn’s credentials in this respect were well established by a demonstration of her undergraduate response to a formal analysis test set by an old-style connoisseur professor. Prettejohn showed a Rembrandt etching about which students who had been reared exclusively on the study of modern art had been able to volunteer only that it was “old” and “probably Victorian”.

A Missing Link

This constructive, even illuminating, conference had two constricting deficiencies. First, connoisseurship’s purpose was largely confined to determining authorship, with, Dr Grosvenor’s startling asides apart, no consideration given to the urgent need to appraise restorers’ often radically transforming changes – an unforgivable lapse given that unsound attributions can always be corrected, while bad restorations are forever. Second, no artists contributed to this conference. While all speakers addressed the problem of producing an Educated Eye, none seemed aware that nothing educates the eye faster than producing or copying art. With artists, critical faculties were developed in academies and art schools by doing rather than by reading about or simply looking at. Listening to conscientious people grappling with the difficulties of connoisseurship while seemingly indifferent to or ignorant of art practices and blasé about restoration injuries, left an impression of a profession viewing fundamental problems through the wrong end of a telescope.

It is no accident that artists have initiated most of the great picture-cleaning controversies. Those who create art best identify injuries to it. The present state might easily be corrected: it would take small resources to have student scholars make brief drawn copies of the works they study, thereby appreciating art’s vital mind/eye/hand connections. Appreciation and discrimination may be of the theoretical essence in connoisseurship, but taken alone, without knowledge of and engagement with art’s practices, they leave practitioners susceptible to the traditional charge of being pretentious poseurs.

Drawn to Distinguish

Hugo Chapman’s sound quest to grasp the logic of the whole triggered theoretical and practical thoughts. Drawing provides the best route into questions of connoisseurship, being the most private, direct and likely entirely autograph form of image-making. If trainee art historians were required to make different types of drawing, even for brief periods, it would be incalculably helpful in establishing connections between historical artefacts and their original purpose.

Students might, for example, practice drawing as Rodin did with his famous late quick figure studies – never taking their eyes off the model while enclosing a complete figure with a swift continuous contour. Rodin did so, he explained, to fix in his memory the unique total effect of the body – its gestalt – and to test his own grasp of the miracles he had observed. The means required for drawing are miniscule: an American newspaper illustrator who illustrated first night performances of plays concealed a small pad and a very short pencil in a jacket pocket so that he could make discretely drawn notes of the actors to use later to prepare his finished illustrations.

By helping to fix images in the mind, drawing is the very opposite of taking photographs, which practice can evade thought and appraisal. Rodin once reproached himself for having failed to appreciate that the most important part of a head lay not in any of its individual features but in the manner in which they were all fused into a whole. In perverse contrast, the decision to restore the entire cycle of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes was made not on any analysis of the whole and its internal relationships but on the basis of brief chemical tests made on a single lunette (the sections of wall above the arched windows in the Chapel) that happened to be within the reach of restorers who were working on minor frescoes. Misplaced faith in the validity of those “scientific” tests (of an insufficiently tested cleaning agent – it was later discovered to have etched the surfaces of stone, producing corrugations that scattered light, rather than to have cleaned them) permitted the Vatican’s curators and restorers to launch a cleaning programme on the entire fresco scheme with uniform and pre-determined applications of a single, ferocious stone-cleaning material (a soda, ammonia and detergent cocktail) even though, to those with eyes to see, the lunettes had played a subdued and subordinate role to the ceiling proper in Michelangelo’s grand scheme. (See Figs. 4 to 9.)

There is a another way

By all accounts, the finest, least controversial, most sensitive picture restorer working in Britain in the 20th century was the German émigré, Dr. Johannes Hell. His method was utterly respectful of the whole and overall effects of pictures. Dr Hell had trained first as a fine artist and then taken a doctorate on Rembrandt’s drawings. He deplored restorers’ practice of cutting “windows” through (assumed) dirt and varnish until bright colours and light tones are exposed (as at Fig. 7). He worked overall on the entire surface of a picture with the mildest solvents so that no optically and conceptually deranging relationships could emerge. His slow method was made slower by frequently “resting” a picture to give it time to air out, so that no corrosive solvents might accumulate within the paint layers. With Hell’s method in mind, it can be painful to consider the haste in which today’s restorers procede with their swabs, acetone, scalpels and “windows” when in pursuit of more authentic and original paint underneath a picture’s surface.

Connoisseurship in action

We take a degree of pride in the fact that the (proper) exercising of connoisseurship has been alive and flourishing within this organisation for over two decades. From its inception in 1992, Artwatch has deployed aesthetic discrimination and visual analysis in demonstrations of injuries made during “conservation treatments”. Specifically and in terms of methodology, we have done so by the correlation of photographic records of the pre and post-restoration states of works. (This website was custom-made to carry directly corresponding images side by side or in continuous vertical sequences so as to facilitate the most directly revealing visual comparisons.) In the Witt Library, we see photographic records that do not just assist the making of attributions but that also record the progressive debilitation of paintings over successive restorations. We notice that the difference between an authentic work and a close copy can be far smaller than that between an authentic work seen before and after a bad restoration. Dr Grosvenor really did not need to wait until he could join the scrum in the Sistine Chapel to appreciate that Michelangelo’s work has been ruined – he needed only to study the countless pre and post-restoration photographic records that we have carried on this site and had described earlier at length in the 1993 (James Beck and Michael Daley) book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”.

The nature of evidence

Defenders of restorations often say that they cannot be judged on photographic evidence. In other regards, art dealers have great faith in the veracity of photographs – they will bid online on the strength of a single photograph. Bernard Berenson preferred to examine Michelangelo’s ceiling by looking at large photographs in books rather than by eye when craning his neck in the chapel. We should be clear on two points: there are no good grounds for disregarding photographic proofs of restoration injuries; the kind of evaluative test that Prof. Prettejohn’s old style connoisseur teacher devised for undergraduates might just as profitably be applied to analysing the differences between pre and post-restoration conditions. (See “An Old Style Connoisseur Test for Undergraduate Art Historians:” opposite.)

For all the social alertness of the New Art Historians, little comment has been made on the major organisational and “ideological” changes within the museum world over the last half century or so. In our view, the failure of scholars and curators to heed artists’ complaints stems from the fact that they have allowed themselves to become dependent on the technical expertise of the very many restorers who have become institutionally embedded throughout the museum world. It is now restorers not painters who pontificate on the making of paintings. It is they who insist that photographic records of their own “treatments” may not be held up and used in evidence against their actions.

Speaking generally, as an organisation, we are bemused by a profession that uses photographs for all manner of curatorial, scholarly and critical ends except for the indentification of restoration injuries. Scholars now routinely revise their own professional scholarly accounts in order to bring them into line with restorers’ latest, often radical, transformations. In the published accounts of restorers and curators alike, nothing ever counts as an injury – every change is presented with drum rolls as a “discovery”. Whole steamships, Vermeer necklaces and sheep can go missing without an art historical murmur or any ruffling of connoisseurs’ feathers. Even in terms of attributions, Artwatch has been pro-active on the connoisseurship front.

The misappliance of science and early calls for the the return of connoisseurship

While protesting since the early 1990s against the cult of “scientific” conservation and its disparagement of “subjective” aesthetic judgements, we have throughout commended a return to proper and rigorous applications of connoisseurship. In the October 1994 Art Review article “How to Make a Michelangelo”, we suggested that “The fact that our scholars and technical experts flit quite so promiscuously through time and space might suggest uncertainty of connoisseurship and ability to ‘read’ paintings”. Three years later, in connection with another National Gallery attribution, we wrote: “In recent years the art of connoisseurship has become entangled with the scientific analysis of paintings. Problems of attribution, once resolved by the educated ‘eyes’ of individuals, are increasingly seen as the property of interdisciplinary teams of curators, restorers and scientists who enjoy the technical, financial and professional support afforded by large museums. But how sound are the new proceedures – and how reliable are the published accounts given of them?” (Art Review, July/August 1997, “Is this really a Rubens?”).

In truth, it might fairly be said that the campaigning essence of Artwatch has been a constant assertion of the primary value of visual connoisseurship – see also, “Is Michelangelo’s Entombment in the National Gallery by Michelangelo?” by James Beck in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, CXXXVIII, 1996. We have devoted two entire ArtWatch UK journals to critiques, successively formulated and advanced by the painter/scholars Euphrosyne Doxiadis and Dr Kasia Pisarek, of the National Gallery’s Rubens “Samson and Delilah” attribution. The title of the last book (2006) by ArtWatch’s founder, the late Prof. James Beck, was “From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis”. It received few reviews – and no mention at the Mellon Centre conference.

A connoisseur of Ephemera

No mention was made, either, of a remarkable new work of scholarship published last year by the British Library and the Oak Knoll Press in the USA – Michael Twyman’s “A history of chromolithography ~ printed colour for all” – which we first encountered in the Institute of Conservation’s Chantry Library, Oxford. The ingenious lengths to which printers went in the pre-photographic era to replicate any image, and all things in the world, in reliable colour on multiple, co-ordinated slabs of stone is truly astonishing to behold (see Fig. 3). It is impossible to exaggerate either the illuminating usefulness of this major, beautifully produced book, or the sheer delightfulness of its immense pictorial riches. For those who might feel that a major tome on a history of a printing method might make for dull or excessively technical reading, we would urge, “think again”: here are to be found ephemera (printed bills, advertising cards and the likes) alongside early pioneering hand-drawn attempts faithfully to produce such elusive epically heroic fine art subjects as paintings by Turner and Michelangelo. The faithfulfulness of the attempts to replicate the values of the most hallowed artists summoned applications of great sensibility and powers of aesthetic discrimination. Here, the connoisseur, the scholar, the social historian, the technical historian and the lover of fine drawing and colouring might all feast together, in awe at the dedication, the talent, the artistic insight found in an unsung publishing trade.

We were delighted, for example, to find so full an account of the production of Robert Carrick’s 30 x 44 inches 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s “ Rockets and Blue Lights…” made in no fewer than fourteen colour separations (see Fig. 9). That faithfully made, expensive and then state of the art record (“the only perfect reproduction of a picture ever issued” – as it was claimed to have been in 1900) testifies indisputably to the destruction of the principal boat in the painting on which we have commented a number of times, most recently on the obtuse (or brazen) presentation of this wrecked picture as a jewel in Turner’s crown – see “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.

Even more importantly, there is also reproduced, in its entirety, a massive 1,027 x 470 mm (40 by 27 inches) faithful cartography-like, on-the-flat, full colour image of 1852-53, that simultaneously depicts the entire curving geometries of Michelangelo’s combined ceiling and upper walls decorations (see Figs. 4 to 8). We had never before seen this work in its entirety. It reproduces every single figure (there are over three hundred) and architectural motif Michelangelo depicted. Most preciously of all, this encyclopaedic record testifies to the hierarchy of values within which Michelangelo situated his images.

By capturing the tonal and chromatic logic of the whole, not the fragment, of Michelangelo’s murals, this hand-drawn lithograph corroborates precisely the written testimony of the painter Charles Heath Wilson who examined the ceiling on a special scaffold in the 19th century. All parts of this great pictorial ensemble were not equal in their treatment. The “outer” section (as here seen at Figs. 4 and 5) was the semi-circular sections of painting made around the windows on the upper walls (the lunettes). They were the darkest passages of painting. They contained in their illusionistic recesses (see Fig. 7) depictions of the ancestors of Christ. This dark band of human figures set Michelangelo’s work apart from the wall paintings below – as did his great escalation of scale in his figures. Far from being an arbitrary but precisely situated zone of dirt, as the Vatican authorities preposterously and against all scholarly records claimed, this dark zone served aesthetically and symbolically as a kind of visual plinth for the even more monumental figures and the Divine Events depicted above on the ceiling. The next row comprised an architectural screen against which Michelangelo’s stupendous giant prophets and sibyls were set and relieved in the brilliant cinematic, shadows-casting light we have previously described. Above them, set in the sky glimpsed through illusionistic apertures in ceiling’s architectural scheme are the biblical scenes and the depictions of God Himself – Whose restoration injuries we have also chronicled. Today, by the miracles of our technology, we can see and move around the entire, now restoration-ruined surfaces of the Sistine Chapel, but the Vatican will not release a TV film made in the 1960s of the pre-restored state. Recent technical advances have carried us into a world where it is possible to produce perfect facsimiles not only of images but of three-dimensional objects and, even architectural spaces and forms.

CODA

The small exhibition currently showing at the Soane Museum shows three-dimensional realisations of graphic inventions of Piranesi by the foundation Factum Arte. A full size replica made by the foundation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt was unveiled this week. It was reported by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times “Fit for a king: Tutankhamun’s replica burial chamber”(see Fig.). Such technical capacities for replication raise issues that we will explore in coming posts. This fertile new territory is one for which scholars and connoisseurs will be ill-prepared to assess for as long as they ignore the mistreatment of unique and historic art objects by technicians who transform them into synthetic, polished replications of their (assumed) original autograph states. This website launched in 2010 with a discussion on authenticity in art and music (“The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity'”). It did so in response to a restorer’s imposition (in new but deceivingly aged and cracked paint) of a piece of computer-generated “virtual reality” onto Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Connoisseurship is more urgently needed today than ever.

Michael Daley

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Top, a page of a review by Daisy Dunn (April issue of Standpoint magazine) of the Factum Arte “Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess” exhibition at the Soane Museum, London, showing the gilt seashell-based chair that has been realised from an engraved design by Piranesi.
At Fig. 2, above, we see a preliminary computer generated realisation of another Piranesi design – for a coffee pot – that was subsequently replicated in three dimensions and is now on show at the Soane Museum.
Above, Fig. 3: An illustration from Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography” (p. 452), showing a 1904 photograph (Modern Lithographer, vol 1, no. 4, April 1904) of printers at Messrs. W. H. Smith & Son’s chromolithographic establishment, London, moving a lithographic stone weighing about half a ton.
Above, figs. 4 and 5: Top, a detail, and, above, the whole of a lithograph printed, probably, in twenty-one colours on two sheets of paper, showing the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling and adjoining sections of the chapel’s upper walls and windows. The lithograph measures 1,027 x 470mm and was made from an 1853 drawing by Pratesi by C. Köpper under the art direction of L. Gruner and supervision of J. Storch at Winckelmann and Sons, Berlin.
The lithograph is reproduced in Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography”, with the image running across the book’s centrefold as seen here at Fig. 5.
Above, Figs. 6a and 6b: Left, the section of wall and ceiling in the Sistine Chapel that adjoins the wall of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (here seen the thin dark strip on the right of the photograph). In this photograph, taken before the last restoration, we still see the dark zone of the lunettes which set Michelangelo’s frescoes apart from those on the walls below, much as had been reproduced in C. Köpper’s 1852-53 lithograph shown above at Figs. 4 and 5.
Fig. 6b: The photograph on the right was taken after the cleaning of the lunettes and the ceiling, but before the cleaning of the Last Judgement. We see here how the former clear pictorial articulation between Michelangelo’s wall painting and that by others below it has been erased. At this stage, the not-yet-cleaned Last Judgement, seen in the bottom right-hand corner, is glaringly out of tone with the rest of Michelangelo’s work.
Above, Fig. 7: A test cleaning strip made on a lunette, to show the effects of the AB57 cleaning gel when left in place for varying lengths of time.
Above, Fig. 8: One of the ancestors of Christ depicted by Michelangelo on the lunettes (the sections of wall that surround the tops of the Sistine Chapel’s arched windows), as recorded before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).
This photo-comparison was one of a number of such published in a December 1989 article, “SALVIAMO ALMENO il Giudizio Universale”, in the art magazine Oggi e Domani by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti. As a young man Crocetti had worked on a restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 1930s and was one of the earliest critics of the last restoration. His photo-comparison shows the inversions of relative pictorial value that occurred; where what was once darker-than, becomes lighter-than, and vice versa; when, if the work had simply been cleaned, the lights would have become lighter and the darks would have become darker. Such inversions of pictorial value only arise when paint is lost. And, yet, in defence of this cleaning, one of the co-directors of the restoration, the Vatican Museums’ curator, Fabrizio Mancinelli, claimed that his cleaning had led to the “surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and still more of glue varnishes”.
Above, Fig. 9: Turner’s painting Rockets and Blue Lights as reproduced in Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography” (p. 592). This image shows the final stage of proofs (the strip to the left contains one of a pair of registration marks showing fourteen intersections that co-ordinated the printing of the fourteen colour stages) of a copy of the painting made by Robert Carrick and printed by Day and Son in London, 1852. The image is 760 x 565mm.
It was unusual for important, original works of art to be brought to the chromolithographers’ studios because of the obvious dangers. Michael Twyman reveals in his chapter “Visuals and the Visualiser” that in the case of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, this was done by William Day of the firm Day & Son because the printing and publishing house wished to make a reproduction that would serve as a demonstration of the firm’s capabilities in chromolithography.
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Top, the illustration by Jenny Nyström for the cover of “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender”, as on the book’s 15th edition in 1914.
Above, left column: top, the “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender” cover, in its 1914, 15th edition, when chromolithographed in five colours with mechanical tints; above, detail.
Above, right column, top, the “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender” cover, in its 1917, 18th edition, when printed photo-mechanically, in relief and in three colours; above, detail
Both illustrations as reproduced in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography.
An Old Style Connoisseur test for undergraduate art historians:
Compare the two sets of details of Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, (shown left before cleaning, and, right, after cleaning) in terms of: a) their relative vivacity as image and as a portrayal of the subject; b) their tonal gradations; and, c) their colouring.
Above, Figs. 12a and 12b, top, and 13a and 13b, above: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. The details on the left are as reproduced in the Tate Gallery’s 1992 catalogue to the 1992-1993 exhibition organised by Andrew Wilton, “The Swagger Portrait”. The details on the right are from the catalogue to the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
Above, Figs. 14 and 15: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, top, detail as in the Tate Gallery’s catalogue to the 1992 “The Swagger Portrait” exhibition; above, the same detail from the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
The Continuing Questions for Undergraduates here are: e) Are the drawing and the modelling in the flesh areas clearer and stronger on the top detail or that immediately above? f) Could the removal of discoloured varnish alone account for the dramatic chromatic change in the fabric of the dress? g) Was any other colour than blue discernable in the dress as seen before restoration? h) Has any loss of velatura occured in the course of the cleaning? i) Are all the changes that have occured in this painting attributable to a straightforward removal of surface dirt and discoloured varnish? j) Can we expect the painting to return to its previous subtlety and richness of colouring – and strength of modelling – when its present varnish discolours?
A brilliant tour de force:
Above, Fig. 16: “Brilliant flambé vase”, plate 46 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), lithographed by C. Thurwanger, August 1891, and printed in twenty-eight colours by L. Prang & Co., Boston. 330 x 212mm. (As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 547, and by courtesy of The Winthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.)
Above, Fig. 17: A plate from A history of chromolithography (p. 609), showing two proof stages of the lithograph shown at Fig. 16. The upper image here shows part of the key-line drawing made to guarantee the perfect registration of all twenty-eight coloured stages of the printing. The key-line drawing contains two rows of spaces to record the individual colours used to make the image. The lower image shows the final proof when all twenty-eight colours have been printed. It also contains the record of every individual colour and tint used in the row of colour tablets, and below that is seen the successive build-up of colouring as each stage is completed.
Above, Fig. 18: The Lithographic artists’ room of the Dangerfield Company’s works, St Albans. From L. Gray Gower, “How a chromolithograph is printed”, Strand Magazine, February-July1904 (as published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 417).
Above, Fig. 19: Emilio L. Tafani, oil painting of a lithographic studio. Probably the painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, 1944 as “The mystery of the craft”. 785 x 1,140mm. (Courtesy Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of Chromolithography, p. 557.
An Original Drawing Redrawn – and how!
Above, Fig. 20: An original drawing for “Tokyo white figure”, plate 96 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), signed “Jas & C Callowhill” and marked up with trim marks and outline colour tablets. (Courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 548.
Above, Fig. 21: “Tokyo white figure”, plate 96 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), printed in about nineteen colours by L. Prang, Boston. Image 363 x 182mm. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 548.
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: Details of a printed key-line drawing and the finished chromolithograph for a Christmas Card, designed by Rebecca Coleman and printed in sixteen colours by Raphael Tuck & Sons,1881. Both 45 x 68mm. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 565.
Death to world imperialism:
Above, Fig. 24: Dimitrii Moor, “Death to world imperialism”, published by the Vyacheslav Polonsky’s Litzidat (Literature and Publishing department of the revolutionary Military Administration of the Soviet Republic), c. 1919. Printed in five colours from ink-drawn stones, with stippling. Sheet 1,100 x 748mm. (Courtesy David King Collection, London). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 279.
Above, Figs. 25 and 26: Histoire des quatre fils Aymon (Paris: H. Launette, 1883), illustrated by Eugène Grasset. The plates made and printed by Charles Gillot using the “gillotage” process patented by his father, Firmin Gillot. Second title-page printed in four colours. Page 280 x 227. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 321.
Above, Figs. 27a and 27b: The cover wrapper of Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography
Below, Fig. 28: The FT Weekend Magazine (Supplement of the year), April 19/20 2014, carrying Peter Aspden’s report “Fit for a King”.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


24 March 2014

From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures

Part 1: Veronese into Botero

A rupture between words and pictorial realities has emerged in the museum world. It is the product of an over-heated international scramble to produce blockbuster exhibitions. After prising and pulling together works from many quarters, curators of temporary exhibitions write as if blind to the most glaring differences of condition and as if ignorant of all restoration-induced controversies. This widespread critical failure to address the variously – and often very recently – altered states of pictures corrupts scholarship and confers international respectability on damaging local restoration practices. In doing so, this effective pan-national conspiracy “not to notice” also compounds and sanctions the general reluctance of museums ever to acknowledge their own errors in the “conservation” treatment of art. The injuriousness of so much picture restoration is more the product of aesthetic/artistic incomprehension than of any self-agrandising intent. If every unhappy restoration is unhappy in its own way, so to speak, with Veronese, the best balanced of all painters, the most commonly encountered crime against his art is the debilitation of his firm plastic grip by restorers in hot pursuit of brightened and heightened colours.

The catalogue to the National Gallery’s show “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” provides a usefully explicit and clear-cut case in point. Its text is entirely the work of the show’s “guest” curator, Xavier Salomon. The National Gallery’s director, and fellow Veronese authority/champion, Nicholas Penny, declares the catalogue “a significant book”. Formerly of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum, and presently the chief curator of the Frick Collection, New York, Dr Salomon has (with the National Gallery’s own ten Veroneses) assembled no fewer than fifty, often very large, works. Salomon describes his own catalogue/book as both a general introduction for the public and a work offering “stimulating and original insights for experts and longstanding lovers of Veronese’s work”. In doing so, he claims that:

“The two over-arching principles in the selection of paintings for the London exhibition have been quality and condition, in order to show Veronese’s art at its best.”

We recognise that (as Dr Penny once acknowledged to us) it can be impolitic as well as seem ungracious to attack the conditions of generously loaned works. However, given Salomon’s own declaration on the importance of condition – which he reiterates as being “crucial” – we must assume that he is untroubled, for example, by the present condition of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus and that he is happy for it, along with all other works in this compilation, to be seen as both of the highest artistic quality and in the best possible physical condition.

Concerning the condition of this particular painting, among many procedural shortcomings present in the course of its recent treatment at the Louvre (as here reported in December 2010), the restorers were discovered by our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, to have repainted a face twice within five years, on each occasion atrociously, and the second time in a secret intervention at which no records were made (– see below and Figs. 1 to 4b ). Far from alerting neophyte visitors or readers to this picture’s now grossly adulterated state, Salomon specifically praises its “opulent and majestic” overall effect; its “superb” portraits; and its details in which “Veronese reached a level of poignant harmony that was unprecedented”. This is an exhibition and an issue to which we will return but, first, another wrecked painting that is presently being flaunted in London calls for attention.

Part 2: Smoke into Steam

Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights

An extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – the artist’s Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to favour that particular wrecked and challenged work passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observes in the spring issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights … The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

That painting is held by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA (see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”). We first discussed its restoration fate in an article published in the winter 2003 ArtWatch UK journal by the painter Edmund Rucinski who disclosed that the restorer, David Bull, had not only removed the surviving remains of one Turner’s two steamboats but had defended his decision on the grounds that the boat had probably been some later restorer’s invention – even though the existence of a second steamboat was confirmed by the plural “steamboats” in the picture’s full title: Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, and by visual records of the painting, as shown below right.

As we later reported in the summer 2005 ArtWatch UK journal, the picture had been restored in preparation for its inclusion in a travelling exhibition (“Turner, The Late Seascapes”) which began at the Clark Institute and moved first to Manchester and then to Glasgow. It was said that seventy-five per cent of the picture’s surface (which had last been restored and relined in 1963-64 by William Suhr) was repaint and that by removing this paint Turner’s own brushwork would be liberated. What was “liberated” was a wrecked work in which a boat disappeared and the dark coal smoke from its funnel was converted into a white water spout. Despite this pictorial corruption, when the picture came to Britain, the Tate issued a press release in which it was claimed that:

“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic Rockets and Blue Lights (Close to Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840, which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA.”

In 2003 Eric Shanes, of the Turner Society, wrote (TLS 19 December) that although the painting had long been a physical wreck, “until its recent ‘conservation’ it at least constituted a pictorially coherent image. Now it’s right half has been entirely rubbed away, leaving an incoherent shambles that not only bears no similarity to Turner’s original but looks like nothing else in the artist’s oeuvre…”

Shanes later took a more indulgent stance towards the Clark Institute. Writing in the May 2005 Apollo, he held:

“…Yet if we adopt a wider perspective it is easy to see that the Clark Institute found itself in a fairly impossible situation in 2003: it was damned if it restored the painted and damned if it didn’t.”

This seemed to assume the institution had to send the painting across the Atlantic to Manchester and Glasgow. It did not. On October 28th 2003 the Times had reported the disclosure by Selby Whittingham that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had refused to lend its Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on to the Clark exhibition because when it had returned from a loan to the Tate, the previously sound picture had been found damaged and “extremely unstable” (see below). By 2005, the incoherent work that had borne no resemblance to anything in Turner’s oeuvre in 2003 had, for Shanes, staged a partial recovery, becoming a presentable work once again, albeit if accompanied by a health warning:

“Without doubt the Clark Institute can validly argue that Rockets and Blue Lights is once again fully a work by J. M. W. Turner, possibly for the first time in well over a hundred years. But quite evidently, the museum also faces the concomitant duty to be absolutely honest with its public by making it abundantly clear that the Turner now seen by that clientele is but a shadow of its original self. To claim otherwise is very dangerous…”

Institutional intransigence

When on October 15th 2003, the Times reported the article we were about to publish by Edmund Rucinski, Libby Sheldon, a paint materials historian at University College, London, said: “It’s good that [institutions] are being challenged. It makes them take more care. Organisations like ArtWatch, irritating though they are to institutions, are a good watchdog”. In response, a spokeswoman for the Tate Gallery which had extolled the restoration of Rockets said “We don’t want to comment further.” The Tate might have been sanguine about British newspaper reports of criticisms because elsewhere in the press the gallery’s hyperbolic estimation of Rockets, as transmitted through its press release, found many echoes among art critics:

“…this show contains some of the most extraordinary passages of painting ever applied to canvas. Its centrepiece, the recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights… is an unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog [Sebastian Smee, Daily Telegraph]; Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights…The canvas has been given a restorative makeover…Turner’s brushwork is revealed in all its glory” [Lynne Walker, the Independent]; Most splendid…is the dramatic and recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights, a picture so spectacular, that like the shadowy group of figures on the foreshore, you can only stare and wonder [ Rachel Campbell-Johnson, the Times].”

Just as exhibition organisers might seem incapable of spotting or acknowledging an abused picture, so it would seem that the temptations (or the pressures) to lend precious and vulnerable works of art remain irresistible for many institutions. On 24 October 2007 we wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:

“The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition.
A Tate Spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notoriously unstable’. This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”

When asked why no records had been kept of the second bungled repainting of the Veronese face in the Supper at Emmaus, a Louvre spokeswoman described the second restoration attempt as one in which the picture was simply being spruced up (“bichonnée”) and added, “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Fig. 1: A detail of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus, as published in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice”.
Above, Figs. 2a and 2b: Photographs (as supplied to Michel Favre-Felix) showing the group of the mother and children on the right hand side of Veronese’s The Supper at Emmaus. Fig. 2a (left) shows this group before the painting’s recent restoration and Fig. 2b shows it afterwards.
Among the many injuries evident in this photo-comparison, notice the reductions of sparkle and vivacity in the treatment of draperies, when, if disfiguring varnish and dirt alone had been removed, the former vivacity of those passages that was present and evident – even under discoloured varnish and dirt – would reasonably be expected to increase, not diminish. On the logic of restoration’s own declared practices, such reversals require explanation from both restorers and (supervising?) curators alike. Notice, too, the weakening of the modelling of the heads and, once again, the reductions of former tonal contrasts when increases of tonal ranges should be expected to follow a cleaning, not their compression.
Above (top), Figs. 3a and 3b; above, Figs. 4a and 4b: Fig. 3a shows the head of the mother before the recent restoration. Fig. 3b shows the head after cleaning and after the first of its two (disastrous) repaintings. Fig. 4a shows the head after the second repainting (and as reproduced in the new National Gallery catalogue).
In the early post-war years the great French scholar René Huyghe (rightly) complained of the tendency of overly-invasive “Anglo-Saxon” restorers in London and the USA to impose entirely inapproriate modernist values on the old masters. How depressingly ironic it is, therefore, that restorers working within the Louvre should now be permitted to impart to a Veronese head (as seen at Fig. 4a) the bloatedly pneumatic forms found in the playful spoof Mona Lisa painted by Fernando Botero shown above at Fig. 4b.
Above, Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9: Examples of the use of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights in the promotional campaign that accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition “Turner and the Sea”.
Above, Figs. 10, 11 and 12: Coverage in the ArtWatch UK Journals 19 and 20 of the last restoration of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its 1963-64 restoration by William Suhr (top); above, Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its restoration by David Bull in preparation for the Clark Institute’s travelling exhibition “Turner, The Late Seascapes”.
Above, Figs. 15, 16 and 17: A sequence of photographs showing the disappearance of one Turner steamboat (on the right) and the grave weakening of the second. Top, Fig. 15, the now “disappeared” steamboat as recorded in Robert Carrick’s 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights. Centre, Fig. 16, the steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s). Above, Fig. 17, the section of the sea formerly occupied by the steamboat, as left after the last restoration.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


24 February 2014

Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.

On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.

In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:

“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”

Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.

Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”

However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):

“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures.
As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”

History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”

In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.

The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.

Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .

In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:

“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”

Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.

While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:

“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”

There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?

The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911″ which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910″ (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).
An entire programme in the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series was spent examining the technical composition and the provenance of the fake version (which, incredibly, was dispatched to the Chagall Committee in Paris which not only declared the work a dud but threatens to have it destroyed) when a single glance at the two works should have been sufficient to establish that both cannot be by the same artist. Where that of 1911 displays a boldly deconstructing and reconstructing treatment of forms and spaces that is expansive and pictorially dynamic (as well as being massively indebted to Picasso’s then recent and revolutionary cubist works), the other is manifestly derivative and feebly handled, leaving the picture’s subject looking not so much set in a specially re-ordered non-Euclidian space, as pasted onto a monotonously and repetitively drawn and coloured theatrical back-cloth.
Above, Fig. 2: a detail of a Turner water-colour in the British Museum which had been protected from light damage at the left edge by the frame. (See plate 5 in the “Museum Environment”, 1986, Butterworth-Heinemann.)
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers the St. George militia company”, showing a strip of original green glazing that had been protected from restorers solvents by the frame.
Above, Fig. 4: the much reproduced Renoir, “Madame Léon Clapisson” (here as on the BBC) showing the painting in its present condition at the Chicago Art Institute on the left, and in an attempted digital reconstruction of its original (1883) condition on the right.
Above, Figs. 5, 6 and 7: details, top and centre, of “Madame Léon Clapisson” as found today, showing along the picture’s top edge a surving strip of an originally pink background achieved with a glaze of carmine lake, or cochineal, pigment. Scientists have used the investigative method known as “Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” in an attempt (above, at Fig. 7) to recreate the picture’s original appearance.
There has been no mention in any reports on this attempted reconstitution of some consideration having been given to changes in the painting that had occurred not as a result of exposure to light but as a result of exposure to restorers’ solvents, swabs and scalpels.
The painting itself and the virtual reconstruction is presently on exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition was supported by research funding provided by the Getty Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is said that with “this new knowledge and new technologies such as nanotechnology, laser light, and advanced image processing software, the conservation department has been able to reconstruct the work’s original colors in a full-scale digital reproduction.”
A PIONEERING DIGITAL ATTEMPT TO RECOVER A PICTURE’S ORIGINAL CONDITION AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY (LONDON)
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” attributed to Pedro Campaña.
Above, Fig. 9: The near contemporary copy of the National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” that was made by Luca Longhi and is presently in the Villa Borghese Collection, Rome.
The National Gallery claims credit for pioneering the new collective discipline known as Technical Art History. A key weapon in its long, proselytizing campaign has been the publication since 1977 of an annual report dedicated to conservation activities – its Technical Bulletin. The issue of 2001 (Vol 22) carried an article “Colour change in The Conversion of the Magdalen attributed to Pedro Campaña” that was jointly authored by Marika Spring, Nicholas Penny, Raymond White and Martin Wyld. Spring and White were members the science department, Penny was a curator, and Wyld was the head of conservation. It was thus a textbook collaborative effort made under the rules of Technical Art History.
The combined expertises were brought to bear on a striking problem with the painting’s physical and optical conditions: there had been severe deteriorations in the colours of many of the draperies, not least in those of Christ. Many draperies were now brown or yellow-brown, where once they had been blue, green or red.
Microscopic samples were taken from some of the figures and analysed in an attempt to identify their pigments and to “investigate whether there was any peculiarity in the technique and the materials that could have caused such serious degradation.”
Highly detailed examinations established that the blue pigment – smalt – had deteriorated; that a red lake pigment (likely containing dyestuff from the cochineal insect) had faded; and that green glazes containing copper had turned brown. None of these changes were remarkable in themselves, except, perhaps, in their extent.
What was remarkable was that an attempt was made to reconstruct the “altered colours by digital imaging”. It was explained that the changes which had destroyed the picture’s balance of colours had to be accepted as irreversible. Nonetheless, the attempt was made to gain some impression of the original appearance by manipulating a digital image of the painting – specifically, “by applying image-processing techniques”. Clearly, in such an exercise, the nature and type of image-processing software used would be of crucial methodological significance – how and in what manner was the base digital reproduction of the picture to be manipulated?
Explanation seemed to be to hand in a footnote [27]. Alas, it read flatly as follows: “The technical details of the process of reconstruction of the colours by image processing on the digital image will be described elsewhere.” No less disturbing than having to take the means and manner of the manipulations on trust, the account that followed of the factors of consideration suggested a Technical Art Historical methodology more Heath Robinson Contraption than Hi-Tech Sophistication.
Because the original colours no longer exist on the painting, some simulacrum of each had to be produced to feed into the image-manipulating software. Thus, “colourimetric measurements on painted-out samples matching the pigment mixtures and the layer structures were used as a reference.” Clearly, achieving a reliable point of colour reference was vital to the integrity of the exercise. But how reliable were the painted-out samples? Not very, it seemed on the authors’ own account:
“For the smalt and red lake pigments this posed some problems. Smalt manufactured to a nineteenth-century recipe is available today, but contains a higher percentage of cobalt than than smalt in sixteenth-century paintings and none of the impurities that are commonly found in the glass.” Notwithstanding these departures from the original materials used on the painting, this smalt was used for the base references. Because the modern smalt is much stronger in colour than that of the sixteenth-century, an attempt was made to correct (lessen) its force by adulterating it with “finely ground alumina” in attempt to “to try to simulate the colour of the sixteenth century smalt”. Confidence in this adjustment was not high because “this is a difficult judgement to make, since in paintings of the period smalt has always degraded.” Had the painting been a seventeenth-century work the exercise would have been easier because by then the smalt was commonly mixed with lead white pigment, which afforded some protection. Even though this work was not of the seventeenth-century, samples from that period were used a guide reference in the digital manipulations.
Establishing a reference point for the original lake pigments was no less problematic: “Comparison with the deep shadows on Christ’s red robe, which retain their red colour, made it clear that the hue of the test plate was more purple than the red lake in the painting…” And what of the outcome of this, at best, approximate method?
Above, left, Fig. 10a: the computer-manipulated attempt to recover the original colours of Christ’s draperies.
Above, right, Fig. 10b: a detail of the Borghese Villa copy shown above at Fig. 9.
It probably goes without saying that the figure of Christ seen at Fig. 10a seems a most implausible reconstruction. It is claimed by the authors, however, that: “The deeply saturated colours which replace the deteriorated brown, although rather flat because of the loss of the modelling which cannot be reconstructed, balance well with the well-preserved draperies painted with vermilion and ultramarine.” Given that, on the authors’ own admission, the simulated blues and reds are significantly different and more intense pigments, how credible can this claimed correspondence of colours seem?
The article concludes on an assertive note of self-satisfaction: “The detailed technical examination of the ‘Conversion of the Magdalen’, and the process of reconstruction of the colours in the digital image, has produced some deeper insight into how the deterioration of pigments has affected the colours in the painting.”
This was followed by a claim that is quite remarkably at odds with the visual evidence presented (see Figs. 10a and 10b): “Although the strong and deep colours of the reconstruction initially seemed rather startling, they receive strong support from comparison with the Borghese version of the painting [shown here at Figs. 9 and 10b] – which is especially gratifying since the reconstruction was made before the transparency of the Borghese version was available to us.” Given that the Borghese version is on all accounts markedly better preserved that the London picture, what might explain the former’s richer, warmer red drapery and darker, more sombre blue drapery?
Although the authors express themselves as being satisfied with the accuracy of the reconstructed colours, they do concede other problems: “The reconstruction is not, of course, an accurate portrayal of the original appearance of the painting – the lost modelling in some of the draperies cannot be recreated…”
Thus, we see that this exercise has been directed at a single component part of the painting – its self-contained areas of local colours – and that, in the execution, that part has been wrenched from any relationship with the picture’s tones, shading and modelling. This severance is painfully evident in the comparison at Figs. 10a and 10b. It would beggar belief that the National Gallery’s experts could see any sort of vindication for their efforts in the Borghese version were it not for that institution’s by now too-deeply ingrained to be recognised tradition of pursuing autonomously bright colours during restorations at the expense of form and pictorial coherence. Not only are the colours of the Borghese drapery more sombre and chromatically integrated – and jointly more skilfully integrated with the plastic values – but we see also in the National Gallery picture a characteristic debilitating weakness of modelling in the too-brightly scrubbed surfaces of the flesh areas. (It is depressing beyond belief that our national pictorial vice should recently have crossed the English Channel and now be menacing Leonardos at the Louvre.)
It might be contended that we are not comparing like with like. As the authors point out, the one work is a not an altogether strict copy of the other. Moreover, the Borghese version is acknowledged to be in superior condition: “the better condition of areas painted in red lake in the Borghese painting is strong evidence that it has not been subjected to such harsh environmental conditions as the National Gallery painting…The Borghese picture has spent almost all its life in two collections in the same city, whereas, the National Gallery’s picture has belonged to at least half a dozen collections and has passed on at least three occasions through the art trade, but too little is known about the conservation history of these paintings, and the conditions in which they have been kept, to explain the difference in preservation.” The euphemistic use of the term “environmental” in lieu of “restorational” and the sly allusion to possible bad restoration experiences at the hands of the “art trade” cannot gainsay the fact that there is abundant evidence of works held at and restored within the National Gallery suffering catastrophic losses in the course of a single in-house restoration – as the before restoration (left) and after restoration (right) comparative details of Rubens’ portrait of Susannah Lunden (shown below at Figs. 11a and 11b) testify.
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6 January 2014

NEW YEAR REPORT

Assaults on History:
Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence

We had a good and eventful campaigning year in 2013. At home, ArtWatch was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament for the interests of art and against a municipal arts bureaucracy seeking to overturn a prodigiously generous benefactor’s wishes and instructions in order, effectively, to reward its own negligence with an extension of powers and a major capital project (without clear costing). Our views on this proposal were carried in the October Museums Journal, the December Apollo (see Burrell pdf) and in the Sunday Times (Scotland). We found ourselves in the midst of a high-level museum world schism.

MacGregor versus Penny

Speaking for the overturning of Sir William Burrell’s terms of bequest was the Glaswegian director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor. Mr MacGregor had agreed (presumably with the blessing of his trustees) to be co-opted as an adviser and declared partisan onto a Glasgow Life body – “Burrell Renaissance”. In support of Glasgow Life’s ambitions, MacGregor expressed with characteristic (lawerish) eloquence impatience with the length of time in which The Living might find themselves governed by the Wishes of the Dead. The present director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny (a scholar, rather than a populariser of others’ scholarship) spoke no less eloquently in opposition: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”

Parliamentary Concerns

The matter will come before the Scottish Parliament this month. Intriguingly, one of the members of the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Burrell Lending request from Glasgow Life, Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP, told yesterday’s Sunday Times (Scotland) that: “I too was concerned at the cost of £45m bearing in mind that Kelvingrove refurbishment cost £29m and they raised £2.5m from sponsorship and donations. The major work at the Burrell is a complete new roof and removal of lecture theatre to create new gallery space. Both of which will be costly, but £45m?”

Fresh Crimes Against Art and History

Internationally, two recent horrifically destructive mural restorations (the first in Spain and another in China, see Figs. 1 to 4) had reminded many of the great Sistine Chapel cleaning controversies of the 1980s and early 1990s (see “Restoration tragedies”). In January 2013 we were drawn back into that monumental Sistine Chapel restoration controversy (which had triggered ArtWatch’s founding in 1992) by an official acknowledgement that Michelangelo’s stripped-down ceiling frescoes were prey to failures of environmental regulation that were being exacerbated by swelling visitor numbers. We had warned against such failures twenty years earlier: “Artificially induced changes in moisture, heat and patterns of air convection can themselves do gross damage…The most obvious risk is that external air-borne pollutants will be pulled in.” (“The Physical Condition of the Sistine Ceiling”, Chapter IV, p.122, Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, London, 1993.)

An Old Crime Implodes

At the beginning of last year, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, insisted that whatever the problems, visitor numbers could not be restricted: “We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture. Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Today, the unthinkable may be on the cards. Paolucci acknowledges in this month’s Art Newspaper that the huge increases in visitor numbers (5,459,000 last year from 4m the year before) constitute his biggest practical problem:

“…The sheer numbers can be damaging, especially in the Sistine Chapel, which everyone wants to see. At the height of the season it gets 20,000 to 25,000 people a day, all breathing out carbon dioxide and vapour and bringing in dust. We are employing Carrier, a top US firm [who donated and installed the presently failing system] to work out a method of dealing with humidity; otherwise we will have to limit numbers… (Emphasis added.)

On January 2nd Paolucci expressed further concerns in a Vatican museums press release: “I’m asking myself what will happen during the coming Easter holidays and the great canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. This will bring to Rome an immense mass of Catholics from every part of the world. Such extraordinary numbers oblige one to make some fundamental and priority considerations. The objective must be from now on to observe constant maintenance and preventive conservation of the Heritage. To do so we must provide ever more important resources.” At the same time, Paolucci promised that, after 3 years of work, all will be ready in May for the “improved air conditioning, reduction of pollutants and humidity control of the temperature.”

Antonio Paolucci, a distinguished Renaissance art scholar (and student of Roberto Longhi), might be thought to be in an impossible position as director of the Vatican’s museums. Presently, Michelangelo’s frescoes are being devoured by pollution and condensation that are the inescapable by-products of permitting the Sistine Chapel to serve as a tourism cash cow. At the time of the last restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican’s finances were a source of scandal (one of its bankers had been found hanged on a bridge in London). On December 7/8 last year the Financial Times reported “The Vatican bank was established to serve the work of the Catholic Church around the world. It has now become synonymous with financial scandal. An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the Euros 5bn-asset bank and the murkiness of its operations that finally led regulators, international agencies, big banks and even Pope Francis himself to take action.” (Rachel Sanderson, “The Scandal at God’s Bank”.) In this climate, is cutting back visitors really an option? For that matter, is the new air-conditioning system promised for May capable of coping with yet further increases of visitors of the kind indicated by Paolucci?

In the absence of dramatic reductions of visitor numbers (which must presently be netting in excess of £75m p.a.) it is hard to see how any amount of conservation tinkering might resolve the present crisis. It would never be logistically possible to seal every visitor inside a “moon-suit” that would prevent the destructive cycles of evaporation and condensation that were already known in 1993 to be creating continuous migrations of salts and vapour within the frescoes. (At that date it was established that some 425 kilos of water were being pumped into the chapel’s microclimate by the daily total of 17,000 visitors. On today’s visits that volume of water must reach 600 kilos per day.)

No increase of expenditure could reverse the initial un-wisdom of stripping Michelangelo’s frescoes down to the bare plaster, thereby both bowdlerising his art and exposing its remains to environmental degradation. No expenditure could put back the glue painting with which Michelangelo had modified and intensified the sculptural presence of his figures and the unprecedented dramatically illuminated theatre which they occupied. Those characteristics had startled and awed his contemporaries. They were repeatedly recorded in copies made in Michelangelo’s own lifetime and for centuries afterwards (see, in particular the late 18th century copy opposite at Fig. 8).

The Vatican is presently attempting to rebuild the relationship between the Church and contemporary art that was sundered 200 years ago. It is a noble aim but it will remain a vain one until the corruption of art history that followed the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling is acknowledged and addessed. What Michelangelo achieved on the ceiling was unprecedented and precious: a profoundly spiritual fusion of the human and the divine that was rendered corporeal and situated in a palpable space contiguous with our own. Scholar supporters of the restoration claimed in defence of the emasculation of that original stupendous and unique achievement that we could now make “more sense” of Michelangelo; that we could now see a clearer link between his art and that of the inferiors who preceded and followed him. As long as the Church continues to endorse so unfounded, untenable an account, it will be in no moral position to forge any constructive relationship between itself and today’s artists.

If the cash flow is to be maintained and if Michelangelo is to be preserved, there would seem to be only one conceivable solution: as with other environmentally vulnerable archaeological/artistic sites, a full-size, absolutely faithful facsimile of the chapel will have to be built as a destination for the ever-swelling press of tourists. Creating an alternative “virtual” chapel might seem a shocking prospect and a colossal admission of failure but would it be more unpalatable than proceeding with the proposed plan described in our previous post to turn the remains of Michelangelo’s own frescoes into a “virtual” colourised caricature of themselves with 7,000 individually attuned colour-enhancing LED lights that would flood the ceiling with an artifical and chromatically falsifying light ten times more powerful than today’s? Building a facsimile to draw the tourists would mean that what survives of Michelangelo’s original work might then be left in peace, as it is, and once again in a congenial, stable climate.

Further and Fresh Doubts

On November 30th Peter Aspden, the Financial Times’s culture correspondent, declared that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (“the most important such project in recent history”) had been a “crushing disappointment”. Recalling that before restoration the frescoes had been “more real, more subtle, more moving”, Aspden noted that arguments in defence of the restoration “have been rebutted, with no little ferocity.”
If Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes remain the worst case of injuries suffered in the great post-war restoration bonanza, they are not alone. Fortunately there are increasing signs of doubts about modern restoration procedures elsewhere. Consider this further critique of picture restorers that emerged from a most surprising quarter on December 17th:

“…The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today’s conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn’t go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again. It’s a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be ‘conserving’ them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today’s foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow’s restorers. Sometimes I think it’s all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator’s union.”

We had noted on 12 July last year that “There has never been a make-work project like art restoration”, and earlier, on 17 March 2011, that “Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion… Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes”. Although we greatly welcome the recent tacit endorsement, its source is perplexing. The author, Bendor Grosvenor, made these remarks on his (lively and informative) blog, Art History News.

Art Market restorations

Mr Grosvenor, a modern historian by training, has for a number of years worked as a researcher and, latterly, as a second pair of eyes for the Mayfair art dealer, Philip Mould, who happens to be a highly active “stripper-downer” of paintings in search of something better and more valuable underneath. In countless BBC television programmes, in his 1995 book Sleepers and in his 2009 book Sleuth, Mr Mould has been a most effective propagandist for today’s professional restorers, of whom Grosvenor evidently now entertains doubts. Mould himself has conceded with increasing frequency that great risks attend the stripping down of paintings. When asked recently on the best method of cleaning pictures, he replied somewhat flippantly “With spit and polish” and made no mention of the solvents – principally acetone – and scalpels used by his own restorers. (We have been haunted for some years by advice given on how to remove nail varnish when no acetone nail varnish remover is to hand: brush on fresh nail varnish, leave for a few moments and then wipe off. The acetone in the new liquid varnish swiftly dissolves the old hard varnish enabling both to be removed with the same cloth.)

Concealment and Disclosure

With the public museum sector we feel compelled to examine the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions. One such is the Clark Institute’s Turner “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which work is once again being promoted in Britain as the Belle of Turner’s Ball, this time at the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea” exhibition. As our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, has established, another such restoration-wrecked picture hangs in the Frick Collection as an autograph Vermeer (“Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ at The Frick Collection”). The Frick has refused to release to ArtWatch an archive photograph that shows the frequently undone and redone picture at its most pictorially deranged and incoherent “in-restoration” state. A copy of that photograph is held by the Getty Institute but it cannot be released because of the Frick’s enforcement of copyright ownership. All but the most informed visitors to the Frick will likely have no inkling of what lies beneath the present surface. Where Philip Mould seeks to identify and uncover works of quality that have been distorted by later accretions (- the art trade’s “sleepers”), the Frick presently conspires to pass off tricked-up underlying pictorial carnage as Vermeer’s own handiwork.

The Frick is not alone. The Phillips Collection in Washington has repeatedly spurned our requests to examine the conservation and filmed records of the Kecks’ ruination of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Museums have grown bolder in promoting their own conservation efforts, sometimes placing restorers behind glass walls to permit public scrutiny. This seeming increase of public accessibility can have an ulterior motive: one leading international conservator disclosed that the practice serves to prevent embarrassing public outbreaks of shock and indignation when familiar works are unveiled after long incarceration in conservation studios. A Turner painting currently undergoing such public exposure is running at the Bowes Museum where the restorer is presently taking a break after encountering difficulties not identified by preliminary “scientific investigations” – the very type of investigation in which Philip Mould has expressed great confidence.

As we have seen in a number of televised Mould restorations, carrying out preliminary scientific tests does not eliminate surprises in the course of restoration once restorers start swiftly cutting through varnishes with their swabs and solvents to get to the paint underneath. We remain sceptical of the value of preliminary scientific or chemical analyses, not least because, as in the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the analysis said to “prove” the artist had not completed his frescoes with glue-based painting conflicts with other more relevant – and, in fact, irrefutable – proofs of the kind often demonstrated on this site, as here today at Figs.13, 14 and 15.

ArtWatch has another full and ideologically challenging year ahead but a first priority will be to demonstrate the extent to which naïve and misplaced faith in today’s restorers can make professional monkeys of scholars, curators and trustees.

Michael Daley

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Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Above, Fig. 1: The now notoriously “restored” wall painting of Christ (Ecce Homo), seen here before (left and centre) and after (right) treatment. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.)
The fame of the incident led to a great increase of visitors to the parish church in Borja, Spain. The church imposed an entrance charge. At the end of December the parish priest was arrested for what the Daily Telegraph reports as “suspicion of misappropriating funds [£174,000], of money laundering and sexual abuse”.
Above, Fig. 2: The Daily Telegraph’s report of 23 October 2013 on the Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting.
This crime against art and heritage came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”.
Above, Figs. 3 and 4: The Telegraph reported that Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident last year when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja. One Chinese website user wrote. “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”
Above, Fig. 5: Above: Michelangelo’s prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before (left) and after (right) cleaning. The great brightening of colours, simplifications and flattening of design, and destruction of shading and modelling that occurred during restoration led many to complain of the “Disneyfication” of Michelangelo’s work. Note particularly here the loss of folds on the drapery over the shoulder to the left, and the loss of the previous dark shadow to the right of that drapery. Supporters of the restoration defended such alterations on the grounds that Michelangelo had originally painted over-brightly and without chiaroscuro in order that his images would “read” through the gloom of a smokey, candle-lit chapel. Today, despite the creation of a hugely increased chromaticism during the restoration, the Vatican authorites are contending that there needs to be a ten-fold increase in the (artificial) lighting of the ceiling because the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”. Have the colours faded to a tenth of their previous intensity over the last twenty years?
Above, Fig. 6: A greyscale version of Fig. 5. The contention that Michelangelo’s work needs ever-more artificial illumination is ironic – and, in truth, confessional. When his painting was originally unveiled in 1512, observers were stunned not by any brilliance of colouring (no one mentioned his colouring) but by the fact that the artist had given such great emphasis to light and shade, and to “sculptural” modelling in between his great tonal contrasts, that his figures appeared real, not painted, and that they seemed to be occupying real space and not merely decorating surfaces. Experts marvelled that such were Michelangelo’s powers of design that surfaces on the ceiling that were actually advancing towards the viewer, appeared to recede because his his brilliantly conjured illusion of perspective. This novel and revolutionary development was recognised for nearly five centuries…until the last restoration. There are no historical or artistic grounds for accepting claims that the unexpected restoration changes constitute miraculous “revelations” of original values.
Above, Fig. 7: Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses from the tomb of Pope Julius II. In this reproduction we see how light and shadows are trapped/made by the architectural projections. In painting his monumental figures on the Sistine ceiling Michelangelo mimicked the kind of lights and shades that are seen on sculpture placed in architectural contexts, according to the (given) light source. We know that Michelangelo had done so on the ceiling because his effects were described and copied by his contemporaries and then by copyists in following centuries. Defenders of the restoration have claimed that scientific (i. e. chemical) tests, or “diagnostic analysis”, proved that, contrary to previous understanding, Michelangelo had not “modelled” his forms on the ceiling with tonal gradations but that he had modelled principally with colour. This is easily disproved: had Michelangelo constructed his forms with shifting colour values, then all black and white photographs and all black and white engraved copies of the ceiling would look less sculptural. Demonstrably, that is not the case. Similarly, if Michelangelo had constructed his forms by colour, removing the material described by restorers as dirt or varnish, would have produced images more sculptural than before the “cleaning”. That this was not the case is seen in the before and after photographs in colour first at Fig. 5, and then in greyscale at Fig. 6.
Above, Fig. 8: This engraving (of c. 1790) of Michelangelo’s Prophet Daniel shows intense, almost “cinematic” contrasts of light and shade and of very strong shadows that appear to have been cast by the depicted forms and draperies. As such, this image accords perfectly with the responses of Michelangelo’s contemporaries when the ceiling was first painted. It accords with accounts of Michelangelo producing model sculptures of figures that he was painting, in order to study the shadows that would be cast onto the ground or onto adjacent walls. Those who had studied the frescoes’ surfaces at close quarters (before the the last restoration) concluded that Michelangelo had reinforced the shadows on the ceiling with glue-paints carrying black pigment.
Above, left, Fig. 9: This section of the Prophet Daniel seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) shows stronger shadows and modelling before the restoration. Moreover, it shows that Michelangelo used the black glue-paints to revise the drawing and the modelling in the section of drapery on our left that hangs from Daniel’s right shoulder. When restorers remove material that changes the design of paintings, they usually claim that what was removed was not original but had been applied by previous restorers. That argument can easily be shown to be spurious in this case: where complete records of copies exist, it can be shown that shadows which were lost in the last cleaning had been recorded in all previous copies, including, sometimes, ones made during Michelangelo’s own lifetime. (See, for example, How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes, Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times, and, Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size and Figs. 12-14 here.)
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Here, we see a detail of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). Once again, we see (in microcosm) the losses of shading and modelling that occurred throughout the ceiling. If we make careful comparative appraisals we can see the loss or break-up of actual brush-strokes. We can see that before restoration, the forms of the ear were more decisively drawn (note the black line that picked out the bottom of the ear lobe) and more sculpturally modelled. A straightforward cleaning of a dirty painting would enhance, not diminish, the values that had previously been visible even under dirt.
Above, top, Fig. 12; Above, centre, Fig. 13; Above, Fig. 14.
The above sequence of images of Michelangelo’s Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows the continuity of features – note especially the shadow cast by Jonah’s left foot – that were recorded in an unbroken sequence from within Michelangelo’s lifetime until the last restoration.
Thus, in Fig. 12 we see a wash drawing by Giulio Clovio which records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then had destroyed by 1534 to prepare the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how the figure appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. This single image refutes the testimony of the Vatican laboratory’s chemical analysis which was said to have established that Michelangelo had not painted the shadows.
The shadows not only survived for centuries they were recorded in all copies and photographs of the figure up to the time of the last restoration. In Fig. 13 we see two engravings made in the early 19th century.
In fig. 14 we see a photograph (on the left) showing the extent to which the shadows had survived until the last restoration, and one (on the right) taken after the restoration during which the shadows were removed.
WAYS OF CLEANING
Above, Fig. 15: Turner’s 1810 painting “Lowther Castle – Evening” which was given to the nation and presented to the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. As the Northern Echo has reported, on acquisition, the Bowes Museum decided to restore the painting. The museum’s conservation manager, John Old, carried out some “background work” and “a chemical analysis” and began the restoration which is visible to the public every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Like Philip Mould’s restorers (see Figs. 17 and 18), Mr Old began by cutting a rectangular “window” directly through the old varnish until paint was reached. This method of cleaning is widely encountered but is controversial within the field. It was strongly opposed, for example, by the influential and famously moderate or “minimalist” restorer Johannes Hell, for reasons that will be given in a future post.
In today’s picture restoration there is constant methodological churn. There are no agreed methods of cleaning – some restorers favour solvents; some favour soaps; some favour abrasives; others, lasers. Some advocate total and swift cleanings; some commend slow and partial ones. Some favour selective cleaning. There are no universally accepted codes of ethics, no strict rules of professional behaviour, there is no striking-off from professional registers. Despite frequently assumed quasi-medical airs and talk of diagnostics, patients and such, there is, as the painter Thomas Torak has regretted, no Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.
Above, Fig. 16: John Old at work, as shown in the The Journal of 26 December by which time many overlapping windows had been cut through the varnish. The Journal reports that “Although a chemical analysis was carried out” before work began, “it still turned out to be a bigger challenge than he expected as he discovered areas of paint loss probably caused by damp”. It is disturbing that neither chemical analysis nor close visual scrutiny – or background researches – identified the problem before work began: “Although we did a lot of scientific analysis you can never really tell what you’ll find until you start work”, Mr Old said. It is not reassuring that Old “retouched” the damaged area even before the cleaning was finished. Today, with varnish still to be removed when part of the picture has already been repainted, Old is taking a break from work “while further chemical analysis is undertaken to trace the different techniques used by Turner across the painting”. Given that the preliminary analysis failed to detect the surprise passages of damaged (and presumably repainted) work, how confident can we be at this point that further analysis will succeed in identifying all of Turner’s notoriously quixotic techniques on this painting?
With an artist like Turner, can it ever be sensible to begin by cutting windows quickly through sections of varnish, rather than by proceeding in a gradual and overall campaign to thin the varnish and, thereby, approach what is suspected to be the underlying paint surface with circumspection and retaining the option of holding back where necessary or desirable?
Above, Figs. 17 and 18: The dust wrappers of Philip Mould’s books of 1995 (left) and 2009 (right), both of which show rectangular windows cut sharply through discoloured varnish.
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11 November 2013

A Poor Day of Remembrance for Burrell

In June ArtWatch UK was invited (as “campaigners for the protection of works of art”) to give evidence at a hearing at the Scottish Parliament on a private bill to overturn the prohibition on foreign loans from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The experience was both heartening and depressing.

The transparency of the Scottish Parliament’s procedures could not be faulted and we have rarely enjoyed such courtesy and assistance in making our case, or of proceeding with such comprehensive documentation to hand. Our written submissions to the committee and a number of items of additional information were readily accepted into consideration (as were those of colleagues in Donor Watch and Barnes Watch) and made available online. The witness hearings have been televised and their transcripts published online. The testimonies given at the hearing of 9 September are discussed below by Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch. Those given on 19 September are discussed opposite. (The filmed record of the latter can be seen on YouTube.) The record of what was said by whom of which interest group is there for all to see.

We were impressed, too, by the vigour and vigilance of the Scottish press. The Sunday Times (Scotland) journalist, Mark Macaskill, for example, had done what the Scottish Parliament, the Glasgow Council’s many tiers of cultural agencies, and – shamefully – the Burrell trustees themselves, had all failed to do – locate and heed (6 November 2013) the views of one of Sir William Burrell’s descendants: “Mona Dickinson, who lives in Evedon, Lincolnshire, said neither she, nor the wider family, had been consulted by the council or the trustees of the Burrell Collection. ‘I rather suspect they have tried to smuggle this through’, she said yesterday.” This intervention would not have been lost on the Art Fund’s director of development, Amy Ross, who argued in October’s Museums Journal that where no family members survive who might agree to renegotiate a bequest’s terms, existing arrangements should stand, for fear of clear breaches of trust dissuading others from making future bequests. Ms Dickinson’s opposition to the proposed overturning of Burrell’s terms of her ancestor’s bequest could not have been firmer or clearer: “Glasgow Council obviously thinks it can get the bill ratified this time. I’m sure it thinks sending some of the collection overseas will make money and attract publicity. But this debate was thoroughly rehearsed in 1997. Experts warned then, as now, that every time you wrap and unwrap a tapestry, some sort of damage can occur. It is inevitable.”

The hearing in which we gave evidence took place on 19 September under the committee set up to scrutinise the BURRELL COLLECTION (LENDING AND BORROWING) (SCOTLAND) BILL. We had assumed that consideration was being given to a proposal to over-ride the terms of Sir William Burrell’s bequest but learned, rather, that concrete arrangements were already underway to lend the collection’s works to a succession of venues within Britain and abroad even though this operation (known as “The Tour”) expressly ran against Burrell’s clear wishes and instructions, as set out in both his will and an agreement with the City of Glasgow. It began to seem as if the Scottish Parliament (which the comedian Billy Connolly dubbed a “Wee pretendy parliament”) was in danger of being bounced by an invitation from a big city council not to thwart a linked series of major and mutually dependent projects already set in train and fronted by a co-opted assembly of influential art world players in a new organisation – “Burrell Renaissance” – created to drive the not-authorised plans along.

It had not been reassuring that on the day of the 9 September hearing, the Convener of the scrutinising committee, Joan McAlpine, (SNP), a journalist on The Daily Record, had told The Scotsman that plans were already in motion through Glasgow Life (which she sees as “the arms-length organisation which manages the Burrell”) to send part of the Burrell Collection to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and that these provided “an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland”. Nonetheless, she assured the newspaper, her committee had an “open mind”. It certainly appeared that, under the committee members’ interrogations, the case for the (prospective) enterprise had repeatedly fallen apart. The public discomfitting of the enigmatic Glaswegian director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, drew from him both an insistence on an earlier “neutrality” that had escaped some commentators and an impassioned espousal of the present attempt – to which he is party as a co-opted adviser – to overturn Burrell’s terms.

It became apparent during the hearings of 9 September, for example, that the sums being sought (£15m here, £15m there) had the precision of little more than a bureaucrat’s back-of-an-envelope wish list. It had further emerged that in little over a decade there had been a tenfold increase in the claimed cost of remedying the Burrell Collection’s leaky building. The fact that rectifying the Council’s long-standing neglect of the building (the roof of which had leaked from virtually its first days) was said to require such huge and rounded sums – as well as the closure of the collection for no less than four years – was itself presented as a justification for breaching Burrell’s terms and sending his works abroad as revenue-raisers and civic/national flag-wavers. In 2001 the estimated bill for repairing the roof was put at £1.75 million. With further sums allotted to upgrade the museum’s plant, retail and display and exhibition areas, the total was said to be “likely in the region of £4 to £5 million.” Today, the latter is put at between £40 and £45 million. No explanation was given for this staggering inflation.

Because of the clarity and force of Burrell’s explicit wishes and terms of bequest, it had been conceded that no possibility exists of their being overturned or “re-interpreted” in the courts: “As there is no legal remedy which would allow all the restrictions on lending and borrowing to be relaxed, Glasgow City Council must pursue a private bill in order to achieve this end”. If successful, the Council and its cultural satellites would not only breach Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans but also those against loans within Britain of entire categories of vulnerable works, thereby creating not just a precedent for further general subversions of benefactors’ wishes and terms, but also a potentially lethal one for benefactors’ attempts to protect their art from being subjected to needless risks.

The extent to which, as previously described, all of the arts and sport have been brought under firm political control in Glasgow is remarkable and might be thought unfortunate. The two spheres are administered by an entity known as “Glasgow Life”, which is both a charity and a company with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council – and its chair is the deputy leader of Glasgow City Council, Councillor Archie Graham. Glasgow City Council manages all of the City’s museums and galleries through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Burrell Renaissance has been created with a chairman who is also a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. At the bottom of this interlocking edifice is to be found the seemingly ineffectual Trustees of the bequeathed collection (- playing a “long-stop” role, in the chairman’s words). As for the Collection’s curators, when we attempted (through Glasgow Life) to meet them at the museum on September 18th we were met instead by three Glasgow Life officers.

Now we know better: the Committee is today recommending that Burrell’s prohibition be over-turned and that Glasgow Council’s wishes be met in full. The locked-in cash value of a fabulous artistic inheritance gifted to the people of Glasgow may now be harvested internationally by an administration that has brought the collection’s home to a shameful level of dereliction as it indulged itself elsewhere with expensive “Grand Projects”. Yet another tranche of hitherto well-preserved works will be consigned to the unvirtuous conservation cycle as works get “conserved” so as to be made “fit-to-travel” and then “re-conserved” to put them right on their return from their ordeals – if they return, that is, and are not filched en route (see right). The Committee has placed its faith in assurances given by the over-turners. We cannot share it.

THE BURRELL COMMITTEE HEARING OF 9 SEPTEMBER 2013

The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP).
The Witnesses: Alan Eccles LLP; Cllr Archie Graham (Glasgow City Council Deputy Leader and Glasgow Life Chairperson); Sir Angus Grossart (Glasgow Life, Independent Director); Dr Bridget McConnell (Glasgow Life, Chief Executive); Hon. Christopher McLaren (Samuel Courtauld Trust, Chairman); Ben Thompson (National Galleries of Scotland, Chairman of Trustees); Jeremy Warren (Wallace Collection, Collections and Academic Director).

THE BURRELL COMMITTEE HEARING OF 19 SEPTEMBER 2013

The Committee: Joan McAlpine (SNP) (Convener); Jackson Carlaw (Con); Mark Griffon (Lab); and, Gordon MacDonald (SNP) (not present).
The Witnesses:Michael Daley (ArtWatch UK); Prof. Hope Gretton (University of Edinburgh); Sir Peter Hutchison (Charirman, Burrell Trustees); Frances Lennard (Centre for Textile Conservation and technical Art History); Robert Taylor (Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co); Peter Wilkinson (Constantine).

Secrecy, Transparency and Equivocations

Dr Whittingham discusses the September 9th hearing:

Ben Thomson for the National Galleries of Scotland on the subject of wills typifies those who want to have their cake and eat it. They profess fidelity to them to encourage future donors, but in practice think that they need not (sometimes/always) be followed. This contradiction is squared by arguing that the donor, if alive, would (mirabile dictu!) be someone of entirely the same opinions as the curator and would not only agree to the changes, but heartily advocate them! (So here Sir Angus Grossart on Burrell, 19; Hon. Christopher McLaren on Lord Lee of Fareham, 60-1).

Thomson’s equivocations are hard to understand, as he says that the NG of S adheres to conditions which they think are either absurd (their former Director, Sir Tim Clifford, derisively listed some in a radio programme in which I took part) or outdated – the latter in the case of the Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours, an example which must be awkward for advocates of the Burrell Bill.

The Hon. Christopher McLaren for the Samuel Courtauld Trust/Courtauld Gallery is much more gung-ho about lending and about overturning wills, admitting that they have done this in the case of the Seilern Bequest with the consent of the Charity Commission (47,60). He claims that no one has objected, but I did and I remember that Prof. Michael Hirst did.

In fact hard evidence is not given for many of the assertions and aims of those supporting the Bill. The financial benefits of tours are dubious. Whether they attract more visitors to the lending city is also unclear. The benefits to research are also debatable. The supporters say that loans promote it, whereas Jeremy Warren says that they take up curatorial time. When I first arrived at Manchester City Art Gallery, the committee chairman complained to me that the latter was the case.

Grossart says that the fact that Burrell lent to the 1901 Glasgow International exhibition shows that he was internationally minded (Grossart, 17). But that exhibition attracted visitors from abroad to Glasgow, just the opposite of what Grossart is advocating. The Chairperson of Glasgow Life (Cllr Archie Graham) states that Burrell was determined that his collection “should benefit the people of Glasgow” (14), whereas, Grossart says that “from a museums point of view, collections are left for the benefit of humanity” (17). No evidence is produced that this was Burrell’s aim or that it trumped his wish to benefit Glasgow. Of course supporters of the Bill argue that reciprocal inward loans benefit Glasgow, but again no evidence is produced that that was what Burrell wished. The promoters have conducted polls which show a majority is not opposed to the proposed change. But how was the question framed and how far did the respondents appreciate all the factors?

The Convener says that in the past Neil MacGregor opposed changing the will (33). But he has supported just the opposite. True, David Lister reported in The Independent (13.10.1997) that MacGregor, while maintaining “the need to respect the wishes of benefactors once they have been agreed by trustees”, was going to tell the Burrell Commission next day that the Museums & Galleries Act 1992 allowed some national Museums to ignore those wishes after 50 years. In fact he had stated that in the evidence submitted to the Commission on 1.8.1997. I can only imagine that he felt obliged to enunciate a general (and in practice meaningless) support for donors’ wishes as Director of the National Gallery, while in his heart having little sympathy with that. I remember attending a lecture at the Courtauld Institute years earlier in which he derided donors. Then in 1997-8 it was while he was Director that the National Gallery tried to persuade the Wallace to lend a Rubens contrary to the terms of the Wallace bequest. If he is now reluctant to give oral evidence to the committee, that would not be surprising. When I tried to tackle him in person on the subject of donors’ wills (at the AGM of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution), he made a quick exit.

As for the 1992 Act, it was a reiteration of those of 1883 and 1954. In 1883 The NG was acutely short of space and had an unbalanced and partly unwelcome collection. It was at a high tide of extreme Liberalism. The responsible Minister, George Shaw Lefevre, was “on the radical wing of the Liberal party” and was following the policy of a predecessor, Acton Smee Ayrton, “a former Treasury apparatchik recklessly determined on cost cutting” (Simon Thurley, Men from the Ministry, 2013, pp.31, 40). Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1882-4, Leonard Courtney, was another radical, who in 1916 supported the abortive Bill allowing the National Gallery to sell pictures. (In that debate he explained the variation in 25 and 50 year terms after which wills could be breached, something which puzzles people to-day; House of Lords, 21.11.1916 ). Both the 1883 Act (passed after virtually no debate and uncritically copied since) and the 1916 Bill had the same aim – of ridding the National Gallery of part of the Turner Bequest. As such they have no relevance to the Burrell question.

Numbers of works in collections are adduced as an argument for lending, on the grounds that there is not space to show most. Thus the Burrell can only display 2,000 out of 9,000 items (25). The National Galleries of Scotland have 100,000 items (44). These figures are meaningless unless broken down into those for works (a) which cannot usually be shown for conservation reasons (b) which are of little interest (c) which are the key ones. It is of course the last that foreigners want to borrow, and which (if not on loan) attract visitors to the home museum. For 150 years the figure of 30,000 or so works has been used by those wanting to argue for splitting up and loaning the Turner Bequest, a wholly misleading and nonsensical figure when one comes to exhibiting it and realises that there are only 20-40 key works that can be shown constantly.

Jeremy Warren admirably puts the case against undoing Burrell’s lending conditions (48-52). On the Wallace’s own record, he refers to the refusal to lend its Rubens landscape to the National Gallery in 1998 despite the pressure to do so from the latter. Warren’s evidence should be accorded great weight also because the Wallace Collection is the museum among those cited most analogous to the Burrell Collection.

The Hon. Christopher McLaren says that he and Warren, contrary to appearances, don’t really disagree, as he has recruited Dame Rosalind Savill to the Samuel Courtauld Trust (56). That begs the question of how far Warren and Savill agree (her somewhat nuanced views were briefly reported by David Lister in The Independent, 16.4.1997). It was under Savill that the Wallace held the Freud and Hirst exhibitions. Was she overpowered by Freud’s charm and forcefulness or did she really believe in her heart that showing his work in the midst of Wallace’s was compatible with the spirit of Lady Wallace’s stipulation that the collection be kept unmixed?

McLaren argues that what matters is the spirit and not the detail (47). Of course disregarding the letter for the spirit conveniently allows the woolly subjectivism which is so often employed to overturn donors’ stipulations. In the case of the Lane Bequest, the National Gallery stuck like a limpet to the letter of the law in disregard of what a House of Commons committee judged was Lane’s actual intention. Ironically it was said that under Scottish rather than English law Lane’s un-witnessed codicil giving his collection to Dublin rather than to London would have been legally valid. MacGregor naturally favoured the National Gallery view, supported by a false understanding of the history, which I had to correct in the columns of the Museums Journal.

McLaren’s view of Lord Lee (60-61) is hard to reconcile with Lee’s opposition in the House of Lords and The Times in 1930 to the British Museum & National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill. Lee’s opposition nearly provoked a physical attack on him in the Lords by the proponent of the Bill, Lord d’Abernon! His statement of the risks of travel was reported at length in The Times (16-17.12.1930) and would surely have influenced the views of Burrell. The Bill was opposed by the BM, for which Lord Hanworth, Master of the Rolls, spoke. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, another BM trustee, gave three reasons for opposition: 1. Disturbance of study. 2. Danger of damage. 3. Difficulty of resisting pressure to lend. The BM was dropped from inclusion when the National Gallery (Overseas Loans) Bill was introduced in 1935. This and the exclusion of the BM from subsequent Bills constitutes an awkward fact for Neil MacGregor. The 27th Earl of Crawford found fault with the 1935 as with the 1930 Bill. He argued that, if the object was to promote Britain abroad, that should be done by British art, leaving the restrictions on lending foreign art, which was what was agreed. Mention has been made of art as a tool of diplomacy. Of course art has been used for that from time immemorial, but as gifts. No doubt international relations have a part to play today, but only when other considerations do not militate against lending.

Attempts having failed in 1930 and 1935 to allow the loan abroad of foreign art, in 1953 the 28th Earl of Crawford told the House of Lords that the Treasury was “asking you for the third time to change your minds” (24 November 1953, 466), though again only for the National Gallery and Tate. Again examples of damage done to works when on loan were cited – this time by MPs as well. The debates stretched into a whole year and raised questions about various wills such as Sir Hugh Lane’s. Like other donors Lane changed his provisions over time, as did Burrell, who according to his secretary, Mrs Shiel in 1997, once thought of locating his museum in London. This has been used as an argument for not regarding donors’ final wishes as binding for ever on the reasoning that if they had lived longer they might have changed again. However donors such as Lane, Turner and Burrell had laid their plans over many years and settled on their final one after much thought, perhaps sometimes more thought than that given to the matter by those who wish to change their provisions. The advocates of changing wills might come to change their minds too.

Today’s wish to “liberate” collections (Grossart, 16), the belief that what matters is “getting the works out and about” (McLaren, 56) may in the future seem to be just a fashion, the consequences of which come to be regretted, in some cases too late. McLaren says that the modification of Seilern’s conditions did not remove his one against lending paintings on panel, which the Courtauld would have adhered to anyway (McLaren, 48). This is tantamount to saying that a donor’s wishes should only hold when they concur with those of the curators and trustees for the time being. It should be clear that the main advocates of this Bill in fact do not believe that donors should control their collections from beyond the grave except perhaps for a short time after their deaths, whether or not the collection had been accepted on that basis. Is retrospective legislation desirable?

McLaren says that no one has objected to the changes made by the Courtauld. But the general public will not be aware of such changes. I cannot think of any recent museum catalogue or guide which states the donor’s conditions, much less any changes made to them by the museum. The old catalogues of the Wallace Collection, reprinted in successive editions over many decades, did, but that was unique. The V&A went further in setting up boards giving the conditions of gifts such as that of Sheepshanks, but it is hard now to discover the terms under which many of its main bequests were given. When I suggested some time ago that it would be easy to give these on the museum’s website, I was told that that would be too much trouble. That trouble would arise from the public knowing too much was clearly the unstated thought. The art world in general is shrouded in secrecy. Moves to greater transparency such as the Tate’s publishing the minutes of its board meetings online end in farce when one sees how much is deleted first. Dr Penny has asked for his submission to this committee to be removed from the website and has said that he will reveal details of damage to works of which he knows only under the cloak of the greatest secrecy. In such a state of affairs one cannot have much faith in museum assertions about damage or anything else unless these are closely challenged. Meanwhile curators commenting on a report on the Burrell hearings in the Museums Journal find it advisable to do so anonymously.

Statistics are also sometimes dubious. Thus Ben Thomson states that the Burrell exhibition at the Piers Art Centre at Stromness was visited by 80% of local residents (54). How local? Did they pay or get in free and in the latter case how were they counted? Is he talking about the total number of visitors or of visits?

Reference is made to maintaining or increasing the reputation of museums. In the case of Warren reputation among potential donors seems to be what is meant (49). In the case of the others the reputation of the curators among their colleagues round the world. It is doubtful if the wider public is much influenced by these considerations. A museum’s reputation may be damaged more directly when visitors go to it and are disappointed in their expectation of seeing key works which turn out to be out on loan. Again this may affect only a minority. Mention is made of the Cluny Museum in Paris, which has started lending abroad (Grossart, 22-3). That has lent its famed Unicorn tapestries to Japan. When I checked the first 50 (out of 800) visitors’ comments on the museum on TripAdvisor’s website many mention their absence, but only three thought their visit ruined thereby. Even so, is that an acceptable percentage?

Though I think the Bill makes an unnecessary and undesirable change, I am not wholly out of sympathy with its promoters. Julian Spalding, who initiated the move when he was Director of Glasgow museums, in May gave us a very stimulating talk, most of which I strongly agreed with and which consisted of suggestions probably too radical for many of the Bill’s supporters! When I was a curator at Manchester, I was frustrated by the “squirrelists” (Grossart, 22) and took the conservation concerns too lightly. Long thought about the issues has, I hope, made me wiser. Truly liberal views will take into account the dead and unborn as well as the living and current fashions. J.S. Mill recognised that opinions differ, which is why the peculiarities of donors’ provisions are to be cherished rather than dismissed. Otherwise museums will lose their individuality. Of the Burrell it is said that “the asset and unique selling point … is the imagination and vision of the man who created this incredible collection – that in itself is an amazing story” (McConnell 29) and that it constitutes a union of collection and building (McConnell 20).

I also have sympathy with Sir William Burrell’s Trustees. They opposed change in 1997 but now back it under the pressure of those who urge the dire necessity of raising money for the building (as their Chairman stated in the September 19 hearing). The same much contested argument was used to overturn the wishes of Dr Barnes, resulting in an even more fundamental departure from the donor’s ideas. The Trustees argue that they will have the final say in what should be lent abroad and some say in what should be lent in the UK. However they will be under the pressure to lend which Lords Crawford and others thought could be intolerable. Parts of the lending code are flabby (39-40). An object, it says, should not be lent for 5 years after it has returned from exhibition unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. Any circumstance can be exceptional for those bent on circumventing restrictions. Objects, it adds, shall not be on loan for longer than 3 years except for a tour longer than 3 years. That is no real restriction at all.

If the Committee is minded to back the Bill, the Code should be tightened up and the Trustees given final say in all cases. If a long tour is contemplated, the Bill should limit that to a one-off and thereafter strictly definite restrictions on time, repetition, material etc. should apply.

Selby Whittingham

Selby Whittingham is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society.

UPDATE 19-11-13:

Restoration Damages Market Value

Philip Hook, a director and senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s, has given further “from-inside-the-art trade” confirmation that restorations can damage the value of paintings. Writing in the Guardian (“Got anything in the red”, Arts, 19.11.13) on the present art market disconnect between sheer artistic quality and realised top prices, Hook gives good account of the Bling Factors driving markets fuelled by super-rich aesthetic chumps seeking instantly recognisable works above better but less familiar ones. He well describes the effects of atists’ biographical back-stories and the assistance given to prices by appealing subject matter: pretty women; animals that are depicted alive and not dead, and so forth. In discussing negative market forces, Mr Hook also cites the effects of picture restoration: “Condition is a factor. Paintings suffer and age over time, some more than others. Like human beings, some are subjected to cosmetic surgery. Where this has been too extensive, the price of a painting will be affected.”
It is precisely for this reason that accidents suffered by loaned and borrowed works are so little reported. If paintings were required to be accompanied by log books which listed and described all known previous “conservation treatments”, owners might think twice about agreeing to take risks by lending works to travelling exhibitions.

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MR MACGREGOR AND THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S UNDERPINNING OF GLASGOW COUNCIL’S PRIVATE BILL:
Above, top, Fig 1: Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery (1987-2002).
Above, Fig. 2: Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery (since 2008).
1) A Director’s Thrust…
Item: On 15 September the Evening Standard Londoner’s Diary reported:
Don your armour. The British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor has unsheathed an antique sword and is pointing it at National Gallery director Nicholas Penny.

“At stake is whether a Glasgow gallery can lend out its collection, but it pertains to both institutions’ policies of moving art around. When William Burrell left his art collection to Glasgow in 1944, he stipulated it shouldn’t be moved. It was housed outside the city but the building now needs renovating and its trustees have asked permission of the Scottish Parliament to change the terms of the bequest to allow the works to tour.

“Penny wrote a letter to the Scottish Parliament, objecting, adding darkly that there were many incidents of galleries damaging works of art while moving them and he was prepared to describe them in confidence to a ‘single trustworthy individual nominated by Scottish Government [sic]‘. The letter went up on the Scottish Parliament website but was then removed .

“Now MacGregor has also submitted evidence. The British Museum has offered to help with transportation and MacGregor cites prior examples of successful moves by, er, the National Gallery.

“‘The National Gallery in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition,’ he notes. ‘In return, we lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre, confident it could responsibly move it, exhibit it there, and then bring it safely home.’

“Next year’s Rembrandt exhibition opens at the National Gallery. It has borrowed Man in Armour from Kelvingrove, the Burrell’s sister gallery in Glasgow. Borrowing okay, but lending not?”

It seemed unlikely that Nicholas Penny, who had attempted to give his evidence in confidence to the Burrell Committee, had been the journalistic source for this item. The charge of hypocrisy had been made in the Scottish parliamentary committee hearing on 9 September by Dr Bridget McConnell of Glasgow Life and the Chief Executive of Culture & Sport Glasgow. She declared herself:

surprised to hear that view from Dr Penny, not least of all because we loan items from our museums collection to him. Indeed he has asked for a Rembrandt from Kelvingrove museum – probably our most valuable item – for a major exhibition next year”.

At the same hearing, Sir Angus Grossart (he also being of Glasgow Life and the chair of Burrell Renaissance on which Neil Macgregor serves as an adviser), held Penny’s views “inconsistent with his own practice”.

Those views were put to ArtWatch UK’s director Michael Daley at the 19 September parliamentary hearing by the committee’s convener, Joan McAlpine (SNP), to which he replied:

That is perfectly true. As director of the National Gallery, Dr Penny is clearly in an awkward position – after all, the The National Gallery has loan policies – but from the beginning he has made clear his general disapproval of loans. He thinks that far too many loans are made at far too much risk and has sought to introduce new types of exhibitions at the National Gallery in which the need to draw in works from abroad is greatly reduced. Moreover, he thinks that many blockbuster exhibitions are, in fact, quite naked revenue raisers that serve little or no academic scholarly purpose and he personally is very keen and committed to developing exhibitions that are more thoughtful and more helpful to the public and in which the borrowings, in so far as they are made, are of less famous and well-known artworks.”
Item: Nicholas Penny had received support during the hearings of 9 September. In his testimony, Jeremy Warren, the Collections and Academic Director of the Wallace Collection, said:

On Dr Penny’s views, although his head is organising Vermeer and Vienna secession exhibitions – because he has to and it is part of what is expected of museums these days – his heart is probably saying some of the things that I have said. Actually, there is a risk whenever an object is moved. Even if an object is moved within a museum, it is affected in however miniscule a way. We have been through an age of exhibitions having become almost like medieval pilgrimages, but that might change in years to come, and there might be more focus on the integrity of collections…”

Item: Nicholas Penny might have been aware that his predecessor as director of the National Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, was reportedly taunted during a Board meeting by its chairman on the low visitor numbers for his special exhibitions. Such pressures are immense in today’s museum world. When serving as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Alan Borg, was chided by Alan Williams MP:
When you have one of the highest grants-in-aid per head per visitor, you have a duty to the taxpayer to try and get more people through your doors. The idea is to get people into the museums…Your blockbusters do not bust many blocks, do they?”
Item: In The Times of 27 February 2008, Dalya Alberge reported that “Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, said yesterday that the 184-year-old institution had a duty to display art with which the public was unfamiliar rather than yet another parade of an artist’s greatest hits….What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public…I have a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the direction they are taking.”
Item: The Stifling of Museum Officials’ Anxieties. In his preface to Francis Haskell’s last book The Ephemeral Museum, Penny addressed the charge of hypocrisy…as it had earlier been levelled against Prof. Haskell:
…And he was also accused of hypocrisy because he was, and indeed continued to be, on advisory committees for exhibitions. Francis’s position was never the simple one of objecting to all exhibitions, though it was always a principle with him to refuse to be associated with pressure on directors who were reluctant to lend. [In any event] No public rebuttal was attempted of the case he made, since it would only have brought to public notice the near accidents of recent years and might have prompted public statements from other senior figures. At least one other eminent art historian – Sir Ernst Gombrich – has expressed misgivings about the transportation of great masterpieces. But museum officials are obliged to stifle their anxieties…”
Item: On 30 December 1995 Sir Ernst Gombrich wrote (letter to Michael Daley):
…When I was in Vienna in October, the Kunsthistorisches Museum was under enormous pressure to lend Vermeer’s Artist in his Studio, indeed in the end the Queen of the Netherlands rang the President of Austria (who had no idea what she was talking about!)
So the Museum called in ‘experts’ including a restorer from Germany who all said that the picture was not in a condition to travel. So even restorers can do some good!”
(On 21 July 1995 Sir Ernst had written: “I need hardly tell you that I have much sympathy for the aims of ArtWatch”.)
Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders. The director of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Thomas P. Campbell, said in 2007, when serving as the museum’s curator of tapestry:

“I do have the potential to organize exhibitions on a level that other museums simply don’t have. I mean no one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestry we had here a few years ago, where there were forty-five tapestries on show. The politics involved, the financing involved, the leverage, and the expertise involved: No one else had that. We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe, of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British royal collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just absolute masterpieces.”

(“Museum ~ Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, Viking.)

Item: Above, the National Gallery’s 16th century wood panel painting, Beccafumi’s Marcia, which was dropped and smashed on January 21st 2008 during the de-installation of the exhibition Renaissance Siena: Art for a City.
After the accident it was said by the gallery (Report, 13 March 2008) that the panel is “fragile” and will “never be allowed to go out on loan.”

The panel is one of two Beccafumis owned by the National Gallery. They had been removed from their customary place in the gallery’s high-ceilinged, naturally lit Renaissance galleries for the special, temporary exhibition in the artificially lit basement galleries. There, they had been united with a third panel of the original Beccafumi series, and all three were mounted together in a special showcase. The people who ‘dismounted’ the special showcase had not fully appreciated its complicated manner of construction, and in the process one of the three panels slipped and smashed on the floor. The odds had been two to one against the borrowed panel being the victim in this accident. An international incident had been narrowly avoided.

Because the damaged panel belonged to the National Gallery itself, it was immediately repaired before even the Trustees had seen its condition. After repair, the damaged panel and her sister were both placed in the National Gallery’s badly and entirely artificially lit, cramped reserve collection (which is open the public for only a few hours each week). No press release was issued announcing the accident but brief mention of it was later contained in an online report of the Board’s minutes. When ArtWatch UK commented on the accident in its Journal, the press picked up the story. The then new director at the gallery, Nicholas Penny, gave ArtWatch UK hard copy photographs of the smashed panel and a copy of an independent report of the accident commissioned by the gallery. ["Report on the Circumstances behind the Accidental damage to NG 6369 Domenico Beccafumi's Marcia", by Tadeusz J. A. Glazbus, Head of Internal Audit, the British Museum.]

A striking feature of that report was evidence of the chaotic circumstances that can arise when large exhibitions are dismounted. Once exhibitions are over owners seek to have their works packed and returned as quickly as possible. As a result floor space rapidly fills with packing cases and materials, couriers and conservators, around whom in-house curators and visiting scholars step with guests who are eager to study the backs of works as they are removed from the walls. One Trustee of the gallery told us that it “had been pandemonium on the day”.

Item: In The Times of 19 January 2013, Magnus Linklater reported that the priceless contents of the Burrell Museum are to be taken abroad on tour, despite the specific wishes of its creator, Sir William Burrell that they should never leave the country. The decision that they should do so had been taken collectively by Glasgow Council, Glasgow Life and and the Burrell Trustees even though it would “require a bill to be presented to the Scottish Parliament in order to amend the strict terms of Burrell’s bequest”. [Our emphasis - we would have thought that getting a bill passed by the Scottish Parliament was a more appropriate term.]
Item: On 6 September 2013, Phil Miller in The Herald reported:
“One of the art world’s leading figures has raised serious concerns over Glasgow’s attempt to tour the treasures of its famous Burrell Collection abroad, saying there is a “deplorable tendency” to deny the risks of transporting art around the world.
“In a candid submission to the Scottish Parliament committee considering The Burrell Collection (Lending And Borrowing) Bill, Dr Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says moving works of art has led to several major accidents, incidents and damage to works, many of which have not come to public attention:
“‘What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible (if not always immediate) benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past;
“‘The financial benefits of touring art collections are also greatly exaggerated and do not lead to any significant increase in visitors to the galleries touring the works;
“‘While there has always been much talk of profile-raising to palliate the mercenary motives or to compensate for disappointing fees, the interests of those brokering or encouraging touring exhibitions may not always be very obvious but should be examined very severely.'”
Item: On 23 January 2013, The Herald reported that the British Museum had been lined up for the first stop of an ambitious world tour of the Burrell Collection: “The British Museum, whose director is Glasgow-born Neil MacGregor, is planning a show of of at least six months if Glasgow City Council’s bid to change the rules governing Sir William Burrell’s bequest…is successful…”
Item: On 25 April 2013 The Herald reported that Burrell Renaissance, led by financier Sir Angus Grossart, will be driving the plans for the Burrell Collection which were expected to cost more than the Kelvingrove museum’s £35m facelift. The newly instituted group included Dr Bridget McConnell, the CEO of Glasgow Life, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former ambassador to the US and head of the Foreign Office, and Neil MacGregor, “the Scottish director of the British Museum” who was to be a special adviser. MacGregor listed among potential venues for The Tour the British Museum itself, Europe, North America and Asia.
MR MACGREGOR’S NO-SHOW AT THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT HEARINGS
At the September 9 hearing the following exchange occurred:

The Convener: Is it correct that the tour is being organised in collaboration with the British Museum?

Dr McConnell: Yes. We spoke to Neil MacGregor last week about this. As you can imagine, given that the British Museum lends 4,000 items a year, it has an extensive touring department.
We are talking about contracting the British Museum not to deliver the tour but to mentor our staff, because we want some of the skills to transfer here and we want to build awareness and knowledge. We have some of that, but we want to augment it by either working through his staff or contracting some of his staff to work here in Glasgow.
An arts agency – I have forgotten its name, but we can get it for you – co-ordinated the Kelvingrove tour in North America on our behalf. It took all the insurance risks and made all the preparations for opening events and so on. It has indicated that it would be interested in doing that again in North America this time and our staff are exploring with the British Museum any similar opportunities with similar agencies.

The Convener: We have invited the British Museum to give evidence, but unfortunately it has not been able to accommodate us. What benefit will the tour bring to the British Museum?

Dr McConnell: Without putting words in Neil MacGregor’s mouth, I know that he would be delighted to provide written evidence if the committee wants it.

Sir Angus Grossart: He has been on holiday.

Dr McConnell: He has been abroad on business and then he is off on holiday, so he is out of the country…

The Convener: Neil MacGregor said on record in the past that he was against changing the will, so it would be interesting to receive from him written evidence that tells us why he has changed his mind.
Around the time when the Burrell Renaissance was being formed and Neil MacGregor from the British Museum was invited to be a consultant to it, a story appeared in a newspaper – I believe it was The Scotsman – saying that the British Museum would be centrally involved. Could a conflict of interest be perceived in Mr MacGregor’s role in Burrell Renaissance? Were other partners considered?

Sir Angus Grossart: Many international options were considered. Neil MacGregor is a pre-eminent figure. He was not chosen out of deference to the British Museum; he was invited to be an adviser on his merits. If we were to show any part of the collection in London, that museum would be the most fitting and matching destination [Over the much better temporary exhibition accomodation of the Royal Academy? - Ed.]
I do not think any preference was given. I doubt whether there was any intent to give Neil MacGregor, who was previously the director of the National Gallery in London, a preference. I would not have been party to anything like that.

The Convener: The collection could be shown in London without changing the will?

Councillor Graham: Yes.

Dr McConnell: Yes.

MR MACGREGOR’S (LATE) SUBMISSION TO THE BURRELL COMITTEE:
Item 1: Concerning Mr MacGregor’s 1997 “neutrality”

Mr MacGregor submitted to the current Parliamentary Committee a transcript of his earlier views, as submitted to the House of Lords on 1 August 1997 when consideration was being given to the restrictions on international lending at the Burrell Collection. Specifically, MacGregor had then been invited to give evidence on:

the practice of inter-gallery lending in both the domestic and the international context in terms of its prevalence, its purposes, its effects and its risks”.

Mr MacGregor stated that although he had been called as a witness “by the Promoters”, [Glasgow Council] he wished it to be made clear that, at that date, he had taken the position in which:

I neither support nor oppose the specific proposal that Glasgow City Council should be allowed to lend abroad objects from the Burrell Collection. On that my position is one of neutrality.”

Mr MacGregor further stated that:

The passage from the wall to the packing case is widely considered to be the most dangerous stage of art transport.”

Although he did not say so, we would assume that, at that date, Mr MacGregor accepted that sending works abroad on multi-venue tours necessarily and inescapably increased the risks to which all loaned works are exposed. Professional art insurers have assessed the risk of loaning a work to another venue as being six times greater than when the work is left hanging in a museum and gallery. That being so, it would follow that works being sent on a six-venues world tour would be placed at six times six more risk.

Item: In the Spring 2008 ArtWatch UK Journal No. 23, we ran the following report:
‘Museums now have to do blockbuster shows to get the people in’, Paul Williamson, of the art transporting firm Constantine, said on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight [on 5 November 2007], adding ‘They’re under financial pressure to tour the exhibitions: so various exhibitions may undertake a five, ten or fifteen-venue tour around the world.’ On the same programme, a spokesman for the art insurers Hiscox disclosed that a large claim was filed when a forklift truck driver at Heathrow drove his forks through a very well-known painting that was very lovely.”
NB - The identity of the painting was not disclosed. This is common procedure with accidents – no owner, whether private or institutional, lightly discloses news of an accident and the subsequent covering of traces by a restorer. For this reason, private owners whose work is damaged when on loan to a large institution will usually prefer to have the in-house restorers make a no-charge repair rather than submit an insurance claim for privately commissioned restoration repairs.
Item: Concealing travel injuries. The role of restorers (aka conservators) in concealing injuries is abhorrent to us but often welcomed by arts bureaucrats. As we reported in posts of 2 February 2011 (Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?) and 8 February 2011 (The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around), the European Union sees its objective of generating smart, sustainable and inclusive growth at a time when many of its industries are in decline, as being most realisable in the cultural sphere. To create jobs, the Commission exhorts more museums to loan more works and to be prepared to take more risks with their holdings.

A specific European suggestion is that lenders should: “not insure works while they [are] at the exhibition venue”. This ignores the fact that (as Neil MacGregor and many others acknowledge) most injuries occur during the time of the exhibitions – and especially at moments of handling: mounting/dismounting, unpacking/repacking. In addition to those principally human hazards, environmental stress and risks can prove higher during exhibitions than during the travelling time. This occurs because when well-publicised exhibitions draw the crowds they seek, the atmospheric “micro-environments” of galleries can fluctuate at alarming and hazardous rates as heat and humidity levels soar and then decline at the end of each day at rates with which air-conditioning units cannot cope. ArtWatch knows of many panics that have been triggered among museums’ curatorial and conservation staffs by the phenomenon of heat/humidity surges. In attempt to avoid this problem, the National Gallery greatly restricted the number of potential visits (and hence income) to the recent Leonardo exhibition, but not all institutions share such scruples. Notoriously, and perhaps least scrupulously of all, the Vatican continues to pack visitors in their tens of thousand each day into the confines of the Sistine Chapel, even though the last (artistically disastrous) restoration had, by stripping off Michelangelo’s final layer of glue-based painting, exposed the bare fresco surfaces to the ravages of modern Roman environmental pollution for the first time, and even though it has been admitted that the present air-conditioning is not fit for purpose.

For its part, the EU urges both that greater risks should be taken with security (by reducing the role of couriers) and that the depreciation of value which results from works being injured and then repaired should be discounted because “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are”.

MR MACGREGOR’S (LATE) SUBMISSION TO THE BURRELL COMITTEE
Item 2: Concerning Earlier Misunderstandings of Mr MacGregor’s Position:
1. I have been invited to comment on the application to vary the terms of the Will of Sir William Burrell in order to allow objects from the Burrell Collection to be lent for exhibition outside of the United Kingdom. I am sorry that I was unable to attend the the committee’s earlier meeting.

“2. I note that in the proceedings of the committee of 9 September 2013, column 33, the Convener asserts that I ‘said on the record in the past that [I] was against changing the will’. I fear the Convener is mistaken. In previous discussions of the topic, in 1997, I explicitly state that my position was one of neutrality. That is clearly recorded in the formal precognition dated 15th August 1997 and the report of the of proceedings at the public enquiry page 1272 section A dated 14th October 1997. My [then] position was accurately and unequivocally reported in the Glasgow Herald of 15th october 1997.

“3. I have no idea why Tom [sic] Dalyell in his obituary of Colin Donald wrongly suggested that I was opposed to a change in the Will – I was not; nor do I know why David Lister (Independent 13th October), writing before I had spoken to the commission on 15th October, mistakenly assumed that I would argue that the wishes of benefactors should always be paramount.”

Item: Tam Dalyell’s 27 October 2006 obituary in the Independent on Colin Donald, Burrell Collection trustee:
When in 1997 the Director of Glasgow Museums, supported by Glasgow City Council, mounted a legal challenge to the terms of the will of one of their greatest benefactors, there was outrage among museum staff nationwide. Julian Spalding sought to lend out items from the Burrell Collection, contrary to the specified wishes of the collector and ship owner, Sir William Burrell, who died in 1958. Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, among many others, deplored the challenge, but it was left to Colin Donald to fight it…As senior trustee he was absolute in defence of of the interests of Sir William Burrell’s Trust. ‘The Trustees’, he wrote in a letter to the Independent in 1997, have been obliged to oppose [the Spalding challenge] formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell…”
Item: “Protect works of art from moving” ~ Colin Donald’s letter to the Independent, 28 April 1997:
Sir: David Lister (“When treasure becomes a burden”, 16 April) is free to draw his own conclusions about the Burrell Collection from the facts, but it is important that these facts are correct.

“It is not the trustees who have ‘called in the parliamentary commissioners’. The draft provisional order has been promoted by the City of Glasgow. The trustees have been obliged to oppose it formally as we are of the view that we have a prescribed agenda to follow, which is to uphold the terms of the gift so meticulously set out by Sir William Burrell.

“In any event, the widened lending powers being sought will bring no benefit to the collection, although I suppose they might have a spin-off for Glasgow in tourism terms, but even that is arguable. The trustees have seen no evidence that Glasgow has ‘lost out’ on any exhibitions because of the restrictions on lending items from the Burrell Collection abroad. In any event, there are many items in the rest of Glasgow’s excellent collection which can be loaned without restriction.

“The changes which the City seeks to make amount to somewhat more than ‘dots and commas’. The draft provisional order seeks powers to lend items from the collection for exhibition in any public gallery or other public place in any part of the world, without being responsible for any damage or injury thereto or for any loss or depreciation thereof … with such arrangements (if any) for insurance as the Council may decide. They thus want to sweep away the carefully negotiated lending terms inserted by Sir William in the memorandum of agreement and the will.”

NB - The present Burrell Trustees’ seeming abandonment of their primary duty to respect and enforce the wishes of the benefactor is striking. At the 19 September Parliamentary Committee hearing, the Chairman of the Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, spoke in a manner indistinguishable from that of Glasgow Life officers: notwithstanding what he described as “the problems of overseas lending”, he welcomed the sending of Burrell Collection works overseas on what he referred to as “the tour”; he expressed confidence that if he were to hold an imaginary conversation between his own and Sir William’s consciences, that the latter, 55 years after his death, might react favourably if asked to trust his [present] trustees; he cited as a kind of authority for the proposed overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the fact that the trustees of the Barnes foundation had recently performed a similar manoeuvre; most disturbingly of all he seemed to show a distinct deference to the wishes and abilities of the municipally over-arching body that is Glasgow Life. He used an unfortunate cricketing analogy: henceforth, although the trustees would assume a new role in monitoring loans in general (- which was to say, loans at home and abroad) their position would be not that of a wicketkeeper but that of the fielding position long-stop (i.e. the hapless role seen in schoolboy cricket of a fielder placed behind the wicketkeeper on the boundary in hope of stopping all of the missed balls from scoring four runs). The reason for this self-diminishing role would seem to be that the trustees will now be working closely with Glasgow Life, which body already directs the lending policy of the city’s museums generally. In effect, Sir Peter was accepting what he might well have felt to be a politically inevitable homogenisation of museums and galleries within the city. We note that in 1997, when Julian Spalding was pushing for an overturning of Burrell’s conditions, the position of Keeper at the Burrell Collection had recently been axed. As mentioned above, opposite, we were unable to discover if anyone might be employed in that capacity today. It seems extraordinary to us that such a fabulous collection should be bereft of both strong and independent curatorial leadership and strongly supportive trustees.
Mr MacGregor’s September 18 Reply to the Burrell Committee, continued:
5. It was suggested by the Convener on 9th September (column 33) that as the British Museum might be involved in helping organise the logistics of a possible loan, and as works from the Burrell Collection might be shown at the British Museum, I might find myself in a position of conflict of interest. I think I can assure the Convenor that this is not so. The British Museum would not profit financially from either aspect of such co-operation with our Glasgow colleagues…”

NB That absence of any financial benefit to the British Museum would only be so if visitors throughout the proposed six-months exhibition were not charged, and if they were to spend no money in the museum’s shops and cafes.

Item: How Future Loan Exhibitions Might Help Fund the Urgently Needed Repairs of the Burrell Museum and the Proposed Refurbishments of the Building.

It is not clear how, without entrance charges, lending works to the British Museum might offset in part the estimated high costs of putting the Burrell Museum to rights during the period between 2016 and 2020 when its building is scheduled to be closed for already urgently needed repairs. During the 9 September Hearing, the Committee’s members showed distinct concerns about what might be termed “the business model” of The Tour. In fact, the revenue-raising capacity of The Tour seemed to disappear in a single question/answer exchange:

The Convener: Paragraph 25 of the promoter’s memorandum suggests that lending the collection will provide a revenue stream to support the [Burrell building's] remedial works. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and about how much you stand to gain financially from lending to put towards the cost of refurbishment?

Dr McConnell: Touring does not in itself make money. If it washes its face and make a small profit, it is doing pretty well.”

Mr MacGregor’s September 18 2013 submitted view on the nature of loan risks:
…10. The question of the risk of damage to objects lent is a very important one, and has been much discussed. I attach an appendix to this statement detailing the procedures followed by the British Museum to minimise such risk. Clearly there are some objects which which are not fit to travel. But the best argument on this point seems to me to be the the practice of all the world’s great museums. They are all committed to the safety of their collections. All lend valuable and fragile objects, because they believe there is an overall public benefit in doing so. To cite but one item: the works of Leonardo da Vinci are among the most precious and vulnerable objects in all European art. The National Gallery in London in 2011 invited museums abroad to lend their Leonardos for a temporary exhibition – and they did. And in return, the National gallery lent the supremely fragile Leonardo Cartoon to Louvre, confident that could responsibly move it, exhibit it there and then bring it safely home.

We take Mr MacGregor’s reference to the loan of Leonardo’s supremely fragile “Cartoon” to the Louvre to be a sarcasm (re his spat with the present director of the National Gallery) and not an expression of confidence on his own part that that highly fragile, shotgun blasted and “restored”, ancient drawing really had suffered no deleterious consequences on its journeys (- by lorry and train through the Channel Tunnel?) How might he know such a thing? The effects of vibration on old fragile paintings have been little studied. How might they be? Would any responsible curator permit an old master painting to be fixed inside a container and shaken variously and erratically for hours on end like an IKEA chair on a test bed? The truth is that Mr MacGregor’s writ on the safety of travel today does not and cannot run throughout the world. On 12 July 2001, when bringing ten panels from Massacio’s Pisa Altarpiece to the National Gallery in London, he claimed that it had become safe at some point in “the past five to ten years” to jet works of art around the world because little gadgets in modern packing cases alert handlers to “any movement in the container”. What then? Mr MacGregor did not explain what a handler might do if so alerted in mid-flight.
In the real world, in 2000, pages of the Book of Kells were damaged by vibration when the precious illuminated manuscript was flown from Ireland to Australia.
In 2004 a Raphael was found, on arrival for the National Gallery’s “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome” show, to have suffered “a raised crack” in transit. And so on and so forth…

12. Of course there is some risk in any showing of any work to the public. It is the duty of those responsible for collections to strike the reasonable balance between public benefit and the likely danger of damage. In the field of loans, this balance has, thanks to advances in transport and conservation, changed greatly in the last 40 years.

Yes, indeed, there is always risk when sending art out into the world, but the notion of “reasonable balance” is weaselish. Trusting to the “likely” when putting irreplaceable works needlessly or lightly in potential harm’s way is not to perform a reasonable action.

13. I can speak with confidence only of the experience of the British Museum. Between 2003 and 2013, the Trustees of the British Museum have lent around 30,000 objects* (many very fragile) to venues within the U.K. and abroad. In those ten years, there have been eight recorded instances of damage – in all cases minor, and repaired by the Museum’s conservation team. While deploring and regretting these eight cases of damage, the Trustees believe the balance of public benefit has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that the recipients of these loans, among them museums across Scotland, would agree.”

Item: While Mr MacGregor appeals to the authority of a Universal Practice among all the Great Museums, in December 2010 ArtWatch UK received an appeal for assistance from leading art historians and restorers in Krakow to help oppose a planned loan (for a substantial fee that was paid by the exhibition’s sponsors) of the many-times loaned Leonardo da Vinci panel painting Lady with an Ermine to the special exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011-2012 to which Neil MacGregor has referred. See “An Appeal from Poland” and our post of 29 December 2010. For an account of our objections to that Leonardo exhibition, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration” and “Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow”.
On July 14, 2011 it was reported that, as a consequence of the protests and “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,” Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, has approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.
Item: Concerning Mr MacGregor’s appeal to the authority of his own museum’s performance we note that there are good grounds for treating such accounts with a degree of scepticism:

In 1993 the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, addressed the problem of self-censorship within museums (- to which Nicholas Penny referred, as cited above, in his introduction to Prof. Haskell’s book):

no museum, either as lender or borrower, wants the taint of irresponsibility or carelessness. Although conservators, curators and directors privately raise doubts all the time about fragile and important works of art being moved around by other institutions, they virtually never speak out. When they do, it is as one chorus: nothing goes wrong where they are.”

A further inducement towards scepticism is the public record of the British Museum’s own art handlers. As we reported on 13 December 2010 (“An Appeal from Poland”), in 2006, the British Museum sent 251 Assyrian objects – including its entire, incalculably important, fragile, wall-mounted Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings in foam filled wooden crates in two cargo jets to Shanghai for the “Assyria: Art and Empire” exhibition. Mr MacGregor claimed that:

“It’s easier to transport these big valuable objects now – but it’s just as important to be certain they’ll be safe at the other end.”

The other end can be a long way away. The only flight capable of transporting all of the massive carvings to Shanghai left from Luxembourg to where the crated objects had to be moved by lorry/ferry/lorry. The planes stopped in Azerbaijan during their 16 hours flights – giving a total of four landings and four take-offs each on the round trip. On arrival in Shanghai, it was discovered that the recipient museum’s low doorways and inadequate lifts required that the crates with the largest carvings be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”. So said Darrel Day, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler. “Even then we had to unpack three of the crates to get a bit more clearance…[one carving] was still too tall, so we had knock a bit off”. No! – we jest of course, that should read: we had to “lay him down on his side”. When the collection was finally unpacked (delay had occurred because a replacement had to be found for the Chinese museum’s ancient unsafe forklift truck), it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done” and that a support had broken off one of the carved reliefs. Nic Lee, head of the Museum’s Stone, Wall Paintings and Mosaics Conservation Section, reportedly said: “that was a bit of nineteenth-century restoration that I’d been wanting to get rid of for ages, anyway”. So that breakage was alright, then?

A restorer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that within the museum world there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” when considering works for loans. There would certainly now seem to be a systemic tolerance of failures in the movement of great art works. Forward planning seems an art yet to be achieved by many travel-happy museums (- a wider use of tape measures might help). An incoming Morgan Stanley sponsored exhibition of Chinese terracotta figures at the British Museum produced another art-handling pantomime. The more than two dozen wooden crates required were delayed for two days in Beijing because they would not fit into the holds of the two chartered cargo planes. When they finally arrived at the British Museum, they would not pass through the door of the round Reading Room (from which Paul Hamlyn’s gifted library had been evicted for the six months duration of the show). Even after the Reading Room’s main door frame had been removed, the largest crates still could not enter the temporary exhibition space built above the famous circular desks of the library, and had to be unpacked outside the exhibition space in the Great Court.

The difficulties loan arrangements can generate were discussed by one of Mr MacGregor’s predecessors, David Wilson, in his “The British Museum: A History”, (The British Museum Press, 2002 – pp 334-336, “Exhibitions – A Vicious Circle?”). Sir David admitted, for example, that objects occasionally get damaged and sometimes even “go missing”. As indeed they sometimes do: Every year, more than £2bn of art is stolen, some of which is art on the move.

In November 2006, the Toledo Museum’s Goya, Children with a Cart was stolen en route for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

In 1994 the Tate Gallery loaned two Turner paintings insured for £24m to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. “We will not be sending a courier”, Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, told the museum, “but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/depalletisation of the cases at Frankfurt [airport] and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle”.

In what was clearly an “inside job” the pictures were stolen from the Frankfurt museum and only returned to the Tate in December 2002 after payment of a £3m+ ransom to the thieves in 2000.

In December 2010 thieves broke into a warehouse and drove off with a van filled with £5m-worth of works by Picasso, Botero and Eduardo Chillida being returned to Spain from a loan to Germany. Police said that the robbery had all the hallmarks of “an inside job”. Police/Museum/Criminal relationships are a vexed subject. In the February 2001 Art Newspaper, it was reported that Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General had claimed that the German police had infiltrated the gang (“a group of particularly nasty Serbs”) that had stolen the two Tate Turners, but had “then loused up on the recovery operation”. There are grounds for suspecting a de facto going-rate “reward” of ten or fifteen per cent of a work’s insurance value in order to effect a recovery and avoid a full pay-out.

* This number of cases had been omitted when the post was first published. [With apologies, M. D., 17 November 2013.]


24 September 2013

Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow

It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.

When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.

The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).

The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.

To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:

There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”

Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.

The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:

It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.

Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:

The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”

That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.

What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.

ADDENDUM

At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?

Michael Daley

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Above, the dispiriting dead hand of municipalism hits the visitor arriving at the grounds housing the Burrell Collection. The neglect, as shown here, of a fine gate house to what was until recently a private park and house, does not speak well for cultural pride in Glasgow. (Can no one find a use for this fine, handsome structure? Must it really be left to rats and pigeons?) The firmness of Burrell’s desire for his collection to be housed miles away from the pollution of Glasgow prevented work from beginning within his own lifetime on the museum for which he had provided funds. He died in 1958 at the age of 96. Nine years later, Pollok House and its park was bequeathed by Mrs Anne Maxwell MacDonald to Glasgow. An architectural competition was held in 1971 and it resulted in the opening in 1983 of the present building designed by Barry Gasson.
Below: the problems of a leaking roof in a modern building are not unheard of. Modernist architects have often too “boldy gone” into uncharted technical waters in pursuit of novel technical solutions and forms. In this case the problem appears to be that any leak in the roof glass enters and accumulates within a layer of absorbent foam padding which runs throughout the structure. This padding has, it seems, been absorbing water for years and where the actual breakouts occur within the galleries defies all logic. The solution – which should immediately be applied – can only consist of making good the entire roof, section by section. It inevitably will be a big job in itself and it should not be used as a peg on which to hang additional building projects. Tackling this problem should not be made to wait until 2016 in hope that by that date lucrative international tours of the collection might have provided the means to fund an ambitiously extensive “refreshing” of the entire museum. If made dry, the museum would be fine just as it is.
The staff at this delightful museum are extremely friendly and welcoming, if the visitors may not always be free of larky high spirits.
Above, a sample of the great range and variety of the treasures to be found within the museum.
NOTICE: The 5th James Beck Memorial Lecture
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6 – 8 September 2013

Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers

In a remarkable development the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has served notice to the trustees of the Burrell Collection of the grave risks they would be undertaking if they were to loan the collection abroad against the terms of Sir William Burrell’s magnificent 1944 bequest to the city of Glasgow.

As the Herald Scotland reports (6 September), Dr Penny has attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world. In his submission to the Scottish Parliament committee now considering the bill to overturn the terms of Burrell’s bequest and his specific prohibition on overseas loans (to which committee we will be appearing as a witness this month), Penny, who has had knowledge of 10 major accidents during his career in museums and galleries in Britain and the US, offered to give details of the cases, in confidence to a trustworthy individual to be nominated by the Scottish Government. News of this offer and of Penny’s views broke when Herald Scotland spotted an accidental posting of his submission on the Scottish Parliament’s website.

Unsurprisingly, Penny’s bombshell has caused consternation among those wishing to send the collection on tour during a refurbishment of the building in Pollok Park which is expected to take four years and cost £40m. (We have have expressed bemusement in the past at the nicely rounded figures of building restoration costs which so often come in at sums like… £40m.)

The body “Glasgow Life” which runs Glasgow’s museums is reported to have been “flabbergasted by this”. If it is surprising that a museum director should be outspoken on this sensitive subject which involves a number of art world vested interests, there can be no surprise to readers of this site about the reality of the risks and the adverse material consequences of which Penny complains. In honour of Artwatch International’s founder, the late Professor James Beck, the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal (No 22) carried a thirteen pages long report on the dangers of art loans – “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, by Michael Daley and Michael Savage. For the full text of the report, click on this PDF. (Michael Savage has posted a response to Penny’s intervention on his Grumpy Art Historian blog.) On 13 December 2010, in response to an appeal from Polish curators and conservators to help halt a further loan of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (“An Appeal from Poland”), we disclosed the extent of an injury to a panel painting by Beccafumi that was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery (see top, right). That photograph (and an internal report on the incident) had been given to Artwatch by Dr Penny when we commented in our Journal on news of the incident carried on the National Gallery’s website.

On 11 July 2011 we reported (“Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”) on how the Tate had paid a £3.5m ransom to Serbian gangsters in order to recover two Turner paintings that had been stolen when sent (without a Tate courier) to a small, badly protected German gallery.

The Herald Scotland reports that Glasgow Life is proud to have “formed a partnership with the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on loaning items, to benefit from its expertise”.

It is true that under its present director, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum is a hyper-active dispatcher of art around the globe (- over 4,000 objects in 2006 alone). It should be appreciated, however, that practice does not make perfect in this hazardous arena. As described in our Journal 22 report, when the British Museum packed the peerless, desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings and sent them all to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 16 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s low doorways were too low. No one, presumably, had thought to measure them first. It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darren Day, explained in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes. When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they, too, would not pass through the door of the reading room, even when the door’s frame was removed – some expertise?

A restorer in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” with regard to loans. As described in our 8 February 2011 post (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), since 2003 it has been a declared ambition of the European Commission to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, the EU urges that loaned works of art not be insured, on the extraordinary conviction that accidents can always be remedied: “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”

The simpliste Eurocratic view of restoration is the more alarming because, travel accidents aside, with increased volumes and velocities of loans come an explosion of needless, often themselves destructive, conservation and restoration “treatments” that are undertaken prior to loan exhibitions as lenders seek to protect themselves by having their works “put in condition” for travel. This is done in order to be able to identify and establish (for insurance or blame-allocation purposes) the origin of subsequent injuries. Unfortunately, putting works into restorers hands in such bids to attain supposedly optimally secure condition for travelling itself presents hazards. We discussed one of the most spectacular examples of needless injury in our post of 8 January 2011. On that occasion an owner put his prized and beloved Renoir into the hands of a pair of leading restorers simply to lay a couple of small blisters and then to dispatch the picture from Washington to Paris. The restorers, without any authorisation, presumed to clean, reline (and wreck) the painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the distraught owner, Duncan Phillips, later confessed. On arrival in Paris, the newly restored Renoir was at first rejected as a Renoir. Having long enjoyed pride of place in the home of the great collector, Phillips moved it on its return from Paris into an anteroom. Today it enjoys pride of a place in a hideous over-scaled modern extension to the delightful period house that Phillips bequeathed, along with his collection. The present administrators of the museum have refused all requests to inspect the records of treatment on that painting, and, generally seem rather more animated by mounting their own special exhibitions than in ministering to the original and perfectly self-sufficient collection:

Intersections is a series of contemporary art projects that explores —as the title suggests— the intriguing intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions. Whether engaging with the permanent collection or diverse spaces in the museum, the projects suggest new relationships with their own surprises.
“Many of the projects also riff on the nontraditional nature of the museum’s galleries, sometimes activating spaces that are not typical exhibition areas with art produced specifically for those locations.”

Burrell be warned. Awful as recent “developments” at the Phillips have been, the United States has witnessed an even greater betrayal of a bequest: the wresting of the entire contents of the Barnes Collection from its, also bequested, delightful purpose-built original home and grounds, in order to place it in a worse than awful modernist pile a few miles away, hard by a noisy polluting freeway in the centre of Philadelphia. The denouement of the Barnes Bequest hike began (as is proposed at the Burrell) with a vast international travelling exhibition. At the Barnes, as now at the Burrell, the jaunt was premised on the morally-coercive “conservation” justification of putting the building itself “into condition” on behalf of the great collection of works. Humbug has rarely appeared so rank. The specially commissioned “site specific” Matisse mural was detached from the walls of the museum, packed on a flat-bed, open truck – against all reassuring conservation-compatible promises – and carried at an angle (see photographs, right) to Washington. Nick Tinari, who is to submit testimony to the Burrell Inquiry, has informed ArtWatch “I can state unequivocally that damage was done on the tour to the Matisse mural, the Seurat Models and a Picasso. I have documentation for all three.” Tinari further points out that, as with the intended Burrell tour, the Barnes tour – which netted $7m – breached the benefactor’s express prohibition on foreign loans. Far from serving to make the collection safe, that earlier exercise paved the way to a full takeover. More generally, it served as a template for trustees everywhere who might wish to harvest cash value that is otherwise locked into permanently housed works of art.

Clearly, Dr Penny’s intervention addresses much more than the welfare of the Burrell Collection, precious and vulnerable though it is. It is greatly to Penny’s credit that he should have spoken in such frank (and brave) terms. It is also greatly to the credit of the Scottish Parliament that it should be engaging in such an open exercise before another art world horse may be induced to bolt.

Michael Daley

ADDENDUM

On 7 September, Herald Scotland reported the submission of written evidence made by Dr Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch:

“Dr Selby Whittingham, of Donor Watch, says in his submission: ‘There can be a case for departing from the terms of a bequest when those are incapable of being carried out wholly or safely … but that does not apply in the Burrell case in this instance.

This bill is a consequence of the current vogue for loan exhibitions and for using outward loans as barter for inward loans. This vogue is not wholly benign. It deprives visitors to a museum of works which they may expect to see. And we are not convinced that the transport of works of art is as free from hazard as the advocates of this measure optimistically maintain…'”

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Above, the National Gallery’s Beccafumi panel painting “Marcia”, as smashed during the dismantling of a loan exhibition at the National Gallery. Photograph by courtesy of the National Gallery.
Above, top, the travel-deformed right hand panel of Matisse’s mural “La Danse”, as photographed by Nick Tinari when it had been removed from its original home in the Barnes Collection and was being shown on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end of a world tour.
Above, “La Danse” when arriving on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, as photographed by former Barnes foundation student, Danni Malitzski.
Below, “La Danse”, as deformed by its global travels and as seen when on temporary exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Nick Tinari.
Below, a 14th century polychrome sculpture of Saint-Bernard which, during the Benedictus Pater Europae exhibition (Gand 1981) was knocked over, with the resulting loss of the major part of its face.
NOTICE ~ The Fifth James Beck Memorial Lecture
Above, a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 which was destroyed by fire shortly after landing in Okinawa, Japan, on 20 August 2007.China Airlines had had four fatal aircraft accidnets in the previous 13 years in which 700 people had died. On 2 September 1998, a Swissair jet carrying paintings including a £1m Picasso, crashed into the sea off Nova Scotia, killing all 229 passengers and crew. On 12 July 2001, Neil MacGregor, then director of the National Gallery, claimed that at some point in the “past five to ten years” it had become safe to shift works of art around in jets because of the invention of little widgets within packing cases that would alert handlers to any movements or shifts of condition.
Above, crowds queuing to Walk past the Mona Lisa when loaned to the Washington National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. While being stored overnight in a safe vault at the Metropolitan Museum, the Leonardo was drenched with water by a defective sprinkler system. The Mona Lisa then travelled to Tokyo and Moscow in 1974. A request has been made for the painting to be loaned to Florence.
Below, Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Our support for an appeal from conservators and curators in Poland to help halt a loan of the painting was reported in the Observer of 12 December 2010. We were subsequently attacked in personal and organisational terms by Count Adam Zamoyski, the board chairman of the Czartoryski Museum, which owns the Leonardo. On 14 July 2011 it was reported from Poland that “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,” Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, had approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.
Above, the appeal to ArtWatch UK
Below, expert opinion from Prof. Grazyna Korpal, of ASP Krakow, and an expert of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in the field of painting restoration, on the need to protect Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (30 November 2010).
“The work of Leonardo da Vinci called Lady with an Ermine, from the collection of the Czartoryski Museum is one of the most valuable paintings not only in the context of the Polish collections, but also of the world heritage. Such masterpieces require exceptional protection. Prevention is the main priority. Its fundamental principle is the unconditional restriction of movement and transfer to the absolutely necessary. If you transport a picture panel such as the Lady with an Ermine, even the most ideal methods in the form of modern environmental chambers or special anti-shock frames are not able to sufficiently protect the work against a variety of vibrations, shocks or changes in pressure. By allowing the painting to travel we create yet another serious threat, largely extending the area of possible human error, while increasing the likelihood of the impact of the so-called independent factors.
“Given the technology of the picture, it is necessary to keep it under constant microclimatic conditions, in one place, in a tight microclimatic frame of the new generation, made on the basis of the already proven solutions used for panel masterpieces in renowned museums. Only by storing the picture in a fixed location will [it be possible] to eliminate to the maximum such basic threats as unavoidable external pollution, changes in the microclimate, all kinds of shock, vibration, drastic changes in pressure, and reduce the risks resulting from independent factors.
To sum up the basic arguments put forward for the protection of the painting Lady with an Ermine, I firmly declare that each loan and the associated means of transport are a serious, even reprehensible, threat to the state of preservation and safety of this priceless work of art. I also believe that based on the special immunities provided for outstanding works of art already developed and operating in Austria, Germany or the United States, it is necessary to grant such immunity to the painting from Krakow.
Side note:
“Like every masterpiece the painting Lady with an Ermine has a historical value, and in this value is also included – the Czartoryski Museum, Kracow’s atmosphere and the tumultuous history of the picture during the last century. Each loan ‘strips’ the work of this unique ‘setting’, which while not indifferent to the viewer, should be especially nurtured and protected in the Polish reality.”
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12 July 2013

Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

Restorers (aka conservationists) love conferences – and trade organisations. Today, as previously mentioned, a one day conference (“The Picture So Far…50 Years of Painting Conservation”) is being held at the Royal Institution in London. Sponsored by Christie’s, it has been ambitiously organised and presented by the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) as a major retrospective as well as a discussion of the future of painting conservation:

Fifty years ago as the nation was emerging from post-war depression, caring for the nation’s heritage became imbued with higher ideals, reflecting a new found optimism and confidence in organisation, technology and cultural harmony. This conference will examine and celebrate the aspirations of and achievements of the early conservation pioneers. Pre-eminent speakers will trace the trajectory of conservation practice, philosophy, teaching, technology and professional organisation over the last half century. Leading us to examine the fundamental principles of our profession today and appraise the challenges that will face the next generation of practitioners.”

Listening to restorers it might never be appreciated that art conservation is now a massive and controversial vested interest, a big business with a perpetually shifting ideology that doubles as self-promotion. Chemical and other manufacturers promote their wares through restoration trade advertisements and fairs. There are substantial educational interests. Conservation training (degrees and doctorates are now given) converts arts and science degrees alike into hard job opportunities, increasing numbers of which are in the secure, superannuated public sector. (On the content of conservation training, see Ruth Osborne and Einav Zamir below.) Every last little museum boasts or craves an in-house conservation department and all the technical paraphernalia that goes with it. Sponsorship is easily attained – who would not want to be associated with saving art? For petro-chemical giants sponsoring prestigious museum art conservation programmes makes particular image-improving sense. Development plans for museums are virtually guaranteed fund-raising success if an expansion of “conservation facilities” (along with “educational outreach”) is cited.

Listening to restorers it might never be gathered that regardless of good intentions, their “treatments” irrevocably alter both the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. The alterations that materialise are made on the back of promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions. The history of restoration repeatedly shows (see right) contrary outcomes and resulting controversies. Throughout the twentieth century restorers have sought to convert public opprobrium into professional approbation by mimicking other professional forms – in particular those of medicine. The International Institute for Conservation (IIC) gives a biennial prize (The Keck Award – see our post of 8 January 2011) specifically for those considered to have best increased public appreciation of “the accomplishments of the conservation profession”. Acting directly on the late Caroline Keck’s advice, every conservator/restorer nowadays is his or her own cheerleader.

One of the speakers at the “Picture so far…” conference tomorrow, is the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, who is to talk on changes of fashion in the “Presentation of Old Masters”. A case in point might be the National Gallery’s current “Vermeer and Music” exhibition where (paying) visitors are confronted on entry not with works of art – or even with instruments of music-making, but with a gallery full of conservation propaganda. At the entrance to the exhibition, the first wall panel of public indoctrination reads:

Vermeer and Changes over Time
The passage of more than three hundred years has inevitably left its mark on Vermeer’s paintings. Some of these changes are the result of external factors; some are due to the inherent properties of the materials used; and some are the result of imperfections in the artist’s own technique.”

Not a word is said about the consequences of the restorations that the pictures on show have undergone. Blaming that artist’s technique while not discussing the material actions of restorers is an evasion and a slur. Insofar as conservator-restorers ever allude to restoration injuries, they euphemise them as “abrasions”, “rubbing” or “wearing” – as if, once upon a time, pictures abraded themselves. Where once-alike works are rendered unlike by restorations, blame is not attached to the agents of change. Instead, restorers opt see colourful diversity in works that now express not so much themselves but their “different conservation histories”. We maintain that restorers, who alone are licensed to act upon picture surfaces, should be held properly and fully to account for the changes they make. Two Vermeers in the two National Gallery show might serve as cases in point (see right).

The National Gallery’s conservation dossiers (to which we enjoy full and helpful access) show that the gallery’s two Vermeer paintings have provided something of a playground for restorers. In the fifty years between 1945 and 1994, Vermeer’s poor “Lady Seated at the Virginal” received no fewer than nine bouts of “treatment” – including being lined twice within three years. The last item of treatment (in 1994) was entered tersely into the conservation dossier as “Retouching in face and neck corrected (Bomford). Surface cleaned, revarnished”. No photographic record of this intervention was to be found. When we asked the restorer, David Bomford (who speaks today on “Three Days That Changed Conservation”), he said that this omission was because “there were no real changes – it was simply a matter of glazing a few small sections of the previous retouching which had discoloured slightly.” Such lackadaisical visual record-keeping is surprisingly common in venerable institutions. When our colleague, Michel Favre Favre-Felix, of ARIPA, noticed two unwarranted and bungled attempts to repaint a Veronese mouth and asked to see the Louvre’s documentation on them, he was told that none existed because the repainting was merely a “localised intervention”. A Louvre spokeswoman later described it as a simple sprucing-up (“bichonnée”) and added triumphantly: “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Restorers wield many swords. They repair and sometimes remove the backs of pictures. They apply “cradles” to the backs of panels and then remove them when they aggravate the conditions they were designed to prevent. They “line” extra, new canvas onto the backs of old paintings canvasses with glues, wax-resins, hot irons or heated vacuum tables. Where canvases are already lined, restorers strip off the earlier linings and then immediately replace them with new ones. They strip down the fronts of pictures with a variety of methods and materials that are controversial within the profession itself – Richard Wolbers, a speaker at today’s conference, will talk on one such: “Aqueous Cleaning Methods in Fine Art Conservation: 1984-2014”. When the fronts of pictures are completely stripped down, restorers attempt to put them back together with their own additional painting…which future restorers will piously remove as alien accretions. There has never been a make-work project like art restoration. Every aspect of it spawns multiple and international conferences. The artistically critical repainting stage of restoration is – for well-founded reasons – a source of intense anxiety not just to art lovers but to the practitioners themselves.

In 2010, Archetype Publications, in association with The British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) and the Icon Paintings Group, published a manual on retouching damaged paintings – “Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”*. Icon is a (charitable) trade body that presents itself as:

[T]he UK’s leading voice for the conservation of our precious cultural heritage. We raise awareness of the cultural, social and economic value of caring for our heritage and champion high standards of conservation…It brings together over three thousand individuals and organisations. Its membership embraces the wider conservation community, incorporating not only professional conservators in all disciplines, but all others who share a commitment to improving understanding of and access to our cultural heritage.”

In their Foreword (which strikes an unfortunate “Blue Peter” tone), the book’s three editors, Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachel Turnbull, explain how their publication follows the structure of three one-day events organised by the Icon paintings group and BAPCR in 2007. The series took place because of a “burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice” on retouching. It was recognised that there was a pressing need for “a practical kind of conference dealing with the actual techniques”. This need exists in part because when it comes to retouching the earlier damage that cleanings deliberately lay bare (- and often themselves compound) – “every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand.”

The ICON/BAPCR conference/workshop series was conceived as “showcase” for the expert, and as a means of providing a “welcoming and supportive” environment to those wishing to learn by “listening and looking (in the morning lecture series)” and by “doing (in the afternoon practice sessions”. By all accounts, the symposia exceeded expectations and very jolly times were had in the packed lecture theatres and demonstration galleries and workshops. This professionally successful format had precisely been devised for encouraging discussion and sharing experiences between those practitioners who are presently “locked in a retouching rut”.

Some years ago we were assured that while our criticisms of the National Gallery’s restoration practices were sound, we were being inadvertently unfair to the high standards of expertise then prevailing in the commercial sector that served the art trade. In support of this claim, we were taken to a top-end restorer’s studio to see a client’s work in the course of treatment. The painting concerned was an early portrait which had lost all colour in the flesh tones. Its high-born subject had just received a revivifying application of pink glaze to the cheeks. When we expressed concern about this palpably alien patch of glaze which had passed without modification from cheek to cheek across the bridge of the nose, the conservator-restorer was unfazed: “That’s no problem – it’s easily reversible. I can do it again”. In an ante-room a young restorer was retouching holes in a cleaned landscape by Laura Knight, RA, on the testimony of a black and white photograph of the painting taken before the restoration began with the removal of varnish.

In 1946, the Times published this letter from Knight:

Sir, -With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment on to canvas or panel-always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Retouching is made necessary whenever varnishes and earlier retouching are removed. Varnishes are removed for the “offence” of having discoloured – when that is their nature, they cannot, as artists recognise, do otherwise. New varnishes are then applied which will in turn discolour (and worse, if they are synthetic, not natural) and then be removed in turn. On this merry-go-round of undoing and redoing, a little bit (or more) paint is lost each time to the restorer’s solvents and abrasive swabs, and a little bit (or a lot) of new paint is then added. What is conspicuous about these supposed and claimed recoveries of “original” conditions is that no “restored” painting ever returns to its previous state, when last restored. Each restoration introduces a further, compounding change that falsifies the original work in a game of artistic Chinese Whispers. Rare works that have escaped repeated restorations are highly prized and at a commercial premium. Restorers, however, are unfazed by the falsifications that they introduce, and at the top end of the museum trade such idiosyncratic “interpretive” impositions on unique historical artefacts are positively celebrated.

In the National Gallery’s pocket guides “Conservation of Paintings”, its former senior restorer, David Bomford, acknowledges that pictures are now “changed primarily for aesthetic reasons” (p. 53) and that restorations are carried out on the “aesthetic objectives of those responsible for the cleaning” (p. 45). Moreover, although the “different aesthetic decisions” taken by individual restorers produce results that “may look very different”, all such different outcomes are “equally valid”, provided only that they have been carried out “safely” (p. 53).

These claims are alarming and might be thought intellectually naïve: in matters of aesthetic and artistic integrity, the “safety” or otherwise of the cleaning materials is a red herring. If pictures end up looking different it is because they have been made (irreversibly) different. Restorers should be given no blank professional cheques. No less than bona fide creative people like artists, writers and musicians, they should be subject to critical scrutiny at all times.

Michael Daley

*Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”, Eds. Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachell Turnbull, Archetype Publications Ltd, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-904982-25-0.

The Education of Art Conservators – Examining the Field at its Foundations: Do university programs provide sufficient training?

About ten years ago, popular media outlets such as National Geographic News and the Boston Phoenix started reporting on what has come to be colloquially known as the “CSI Effect.” According to many American legal professionals, jurors in criminal trials increasingly favor forensic analysis over eye witnesses or circumstantial evidence, possibly as a result of popular television programs, such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), that inflate the role of forensics in the investigation and prosecution of major crimes.[1] In other words, the general public has come to trust digital scans over their own eyes, test strips over personal experience. A similar trend seems to be happening in the world of art conservation. More and more, historical knowledge and technical skill have been neglected in favor of scientific know-how. This development is perhaps best demonstrated within the training facilities for prospective conservators. In the past few weeks, the ArtWatch team has done its own crime scene investigation in order to determine what young and often impressionable individuals are being taught about the role of conservation in the study of art…”

Ruth C. Osborne and Einav Zamir

To read more of this report, click on:

http://artwatchinternational.org/articles/the-education-of-art-conservators

 

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

Changes made when repainting losses can be immense and perplexing. What accounts in the above “Mix and Match” face for changes to the already-cleaned state that preceded the “infilling”? What lightened the post-cleaning flesh tones and sharpened features like the nose, which acquired a highlight? What gave rise to the curious little groove that turned the downwards curving nostril apperture upwards? Do today’s restorers comprehend the anatomical genesis of the immensely elusive complexities of nose/mouth relationships that tax even graphic artists working from photographs of the subject (as in the author’s drawing below)?
Above Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, which has been loaned by the Queen to the current National Gallery show, as recorded in 1942 (top) and as today, above. Photographs and photographic reproductions can vary but what reproductive variations might account for the diverse changes in this painting? Formerly the glass on the windows was distinctly coloured – yellow throughout in the lower band, and yellow and blue in the upper window. One of the light tiles (adjacent to the viola da gamba) had a distinctly blue cast, as if from the window. After cleaning, as seen more clearly in the details below, all of the glass in the upper window now looks clear, and the ceiling beams and window sashes all look less substantial and structural through the solvent-induced debilitation of their former tone/colours. Bizarrely, the shadowed side of the rug has acquired intensely bright blues. If the picture is now as originally painted, by what magical powers had a discoloured varnish imparted passages of blue and yellow in precise accord with the window’s glazing bars and beefed up the room’s architectural elements?
The Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock says of the lighting in this room: “From the shadows of the leading in the glass on the window frames to the multiple shadows on the sunlit wall behind the mirror or virginal top, [Vermeer] convinces the viewer of the flow of light into the room. Upon examining these light effects, however, one realizes not only how carefully Vermeer observed its various characteristics, but also how he used them selectively and creatively…” (Vermeer and the Art of Painting”, 1995.) All perfectly true, but those values are no longer what they once were. Should we not notice? Should we not care?
The National Gallery’s Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, is shown below in the late 1930s (on the left) and (on the right) as today. As so often, we find the not-yet-restored work more vivacious in its tonal values, which values brilliantly create a lucid and coherent spatial arrangement in which primacy is given to the central figure. In today’s condition too many values are diminished and conflated. On the face, (absolutely typical) restoration losses of the modelling that formerly had properly set the eyes in the head, have given undue emphasis to the irises and pupils and resulted in a “piggy” apearance.
The losses seen above and in the close-up of the face below (available on a vintage poster of an earlier exhibition at the National Gallery that is now on sale – for £20) raise profound questions for Vermeer scholars who tend to take every state bequeathed by restorers at face value as a recovery and a revelation. Melanie Gifford (“Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique [faulty, as the National Gallery tells us]“, in the 1998 proceedings of the symposia “New Vermeer Studies”) says of the greatly distressed passage of drapery above: “In a work from the end of his career…Vermeer allowed the lace of the musician’s sleeve to dissolve in an evanescent cloud of dots…”
The late painter and founder member of ArtWatch, Frank Mason, said of the two states of this painting as recorded in black and white photographs:
…you can see that the restorers have considerably lightened the wall behind the figure. The wall is so light relative to the window, in fact, that it is now unclear which surface represents the source of light. They have lightened the cherub in the painting on the wall behind the figure, so weakening the shadows in the cherub figure that his right leg now merges with the background. They have rubbed the little landscapes in the scene, both on the wall and on the open cover of the virginal, obliterating the shadows in the forms of the clouds, rendering them flat. One can plainly see, even in black and white, that this painting has been astonishingly altered from the one in which the viewer’s eye was drawn to the brightest area, which had been the woman’s face, to one in which the viewer’s eye is drawn to look first at the big flat planes of the wall, then to the flat planes of the poor cherub, and so on, finally resting at last on the now dim and receding face… It should be noted that that this transformation needs to be seen in colour to be truly appreciated; her formerly rosy, glowing little face has lost its glazes and is now truly green.”
One consequence of the loss of glazes to which Mason referred is that the solid reflective lights of the pearls in the necklace are becoming ever more isolated from the paint which once conferred form to them. We have come to suspect, from the silence that greeted our complaints in the Autumn 2001 ArtWatch UK Journal against the butchery inflicted on the painting below, that scholars may have fallen too deeply into a dependency culture with the conservators – whose “findings” they routinely transmute – ever to complain about injuries to the modest stock of Vermeer paintings.
Of restorers, Mason observed:
[They] can be very disparaging about outsiders who question their technical judgement. I have been accused, for instance, of being ‘an artist, not a chemist’, as if that should be considered a scathing indictment. As artists we know that a fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but that is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes, which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinise a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way; a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable.”
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


27 May 2013

The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size

“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”

~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.

“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”

T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.

It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” [2]. Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)

Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.

A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”

In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.

When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).

How Doubts became Denials

With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:

Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”

This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:

The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”

Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:

But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:

Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”

Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.

The “New Michelangelo”

The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:

Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.

Further Material Evidence of Injury

Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.

Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics

In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.

To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”

An Artist Thwarted

The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.

Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).

An Artist Heeded

When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.

Shooting the Messengers

When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:

“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”

“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”

In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:

“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”

If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:

“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”

Traditional Slurs

At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”

Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”

In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.

The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It

When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.

Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.

Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:

Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”

As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy [3], had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.

Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity

In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.

Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship

In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) [4]. He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”

This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)

Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory

Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:

When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”

Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”

Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.

Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt

As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:

The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]

While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:

Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”

That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)

The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition

Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.

Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”

After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”

On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”

Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:

I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”

A Restorer’s Response

Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.

Hope’s Riposte

Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all. [5] In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:

I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”

Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities

Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?

In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).

Mr MacGregor’s Choice

Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:

Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”

MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.

Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods

In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.'”

Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.

The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?

The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”

Gombrich’s Vindication

Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.

Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:

Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”

We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters'”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.

It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”

Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):

With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.

Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner [6]. He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”

Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.

By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:

The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”

Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.

CODA:

Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES:

1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: hahulson@googlemail.com)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.

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Above, Fig. 1a: A copy of Michelangelo’s Prophet Jonah. This wash drawing by Giulio Clovio and owned by Rugby School of Art, England, is the single most compelling and illuminating indication of the nature of the restoration injuries to Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling.
It records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then destroyed by 1534 when preparing the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how Michelangelo’s painting appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. Crucially, and like so many subsequent copies, it shows that Michelangelo had painted with dramatic lighting effects which modelled his figures strongly in relief and caused them to cast shadows onto surrounding surfaces. Moreover, this pronounced Light/Dark pictorial system is seen to have been applied consistently to all figures, including the decorative sculpted children who adorned the architecture or performed subsidiary tasks such as supporting name plates. The cast shadow here seen attached to Jonah’s left foot was thus present from the very beginning. It could not have been an accumulation of soot from candles or braziers, or a later restorer’s addition, or an optical illusion created by darkening restorers’ “varnishes”, as have variously and collectively been suggested. (In truth, there is no record of any restorer applying any varnishes across the ceiling.) This was Michelangelo’s own entirely autograph cast shadow and it was included in every copy of the Jonah (see Fig. 1b below). It had survived for over four and a half centuries but was removed during the last restoration – as seen in Fig. 1c below.
There can be no grounds for disregarding Clovio’s testimony – and as Charles Hope noted (below left), none had been offered by supporters of the restoration. If Michelangelo had not constructed his figures and spaces in the manner recorded, how or why would Clovio have imposed those values? Vasari described Clovio as “the Michelangelo of small works” who had “far surpassed all others in this exercise.” This drawing’s recorded values are entirely consistent with all contemporary accounts of the ceiling when it was unveiled and there are no grounds for rejecting this testimony. Because the restored ceiling was no longer consistent with this (and other copies) or with the contemporary records, the restorers called for – were indeed obliged to call for – a new history to be written to accomodate the (spurious) “New Michelangelo” for whom they wished to claim credit.
Above, Fig. 1b: copies of Jonah, left, by Rados, engraving, 1805-10; right, drawing by Conca, 1823-29.
Below, Fig. 1c: Michelangelo’s Jonah, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right).
Above, Figs. 2 and 3: The right foot of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as found after cleaning and retouching. We assume that no one would claim that Michelangelo intended the foot to be seen in its present condition, or dispute that these two photographs record a grossly injured passage of painting. The present double image is the bodged outcome of the wrongful removal (by accident or following a misdiagnosis of the surface painting) of a revised foot that Michelangelo had superimposed over an originally positioned foot. That now-destroyed later foot was copied in countless graphic works.
Above, Fig. 4: The Libyan Sibyl’s left foot, sans cast shadow, after “cleaning”. As with Figs. 2 and 3, we had thought when publishing this image in the 1993 book “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, that support for this outcome would not be forthcoming. We were wrong. The restorer Helen Glanville, writing in The Art Newspaper (see below), offered the following defence: “after cleaning, Michelangelo’s alteration in the outline of the Libyan Sibyl’s foot can be seen more clearly”. This was written, presumably, in the belief that Michelangelo had intended to depict a heel not rounded but that came to a point? For an indication of the horrendous injuries and tonal losses inflicted on this foot – and the rest of the figure – see Fig. 60.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette. When this photograph was published in 1986, the co-director of the restoration, (the late) Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli said of the painting method on the lunettes:
Technically speaking, the lunettes are all executed in buon fresco…with nothing done a secco and without even those retouchings which were normal to harmonize the painting when the intonaco had dried too quickly or when one giornata differed excessively from those of the previous day. Michelangelo made sure to use only those colours that he knew were suitable to fresco: …the greens are ferrous silicates…Further, where there are corrections, the colours of the colouring-over are water-soluble and have mixed into the plaster.”
When we drew attention to the incompatibility of that account with the injury seen in the photograph above, where both greens and yellows that had been painted over underlying flesh and costume perished (letter, Michael Daley to Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, 27 May 1990), the account was changed and it was acknowledged that “a green colour applied a secco, not always well conserved, was found”.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail from Michelangelo’s The Punishment of Haman containing, in its centre wedge-shaped section, a repair made made by the painter Domenico Carnevale in 1566 or shortly after.
No technical proof of a restoration-injury could be clearer than Carnevale’s repair here to the lost section of Michelangelo’s painting that ran through the centre of the figure above. Carnevale had replaced the plaster and while it was still wet, painted it to match Michelangelo’s adjoining colours and tones. Carnevale’s paintwork ceased to match Michelangelo’s painting when his finishing glue/size additions were removed (with AB 57 and copious washing) during the restoration. It is artistically inconceivable that Michelangelo had painted flatly and without sculptural/tonal modulations, as today seen today in the outer flanking sections of painting. Even if he had he done so, it would then be no less inconceivable that Carnevale would have repainted the lost central section with lashings of black shading that did not match Michelangelo’s then surviving painting.
On Carnevale’s highly skilfully matched repairs to Michelangelo’s painting elsewhere on the ceiling, see Alessandro Conti’s comments at Fig. 48a and 48b.
How Michelangelo’s Ceiling was Undone:
Above, Fig. 7: National Geographic’s beautifully balanced record of December 1989 (here flipped) by Victor R. Boswell, Jr., showing (in the bottom section, below the restorers’ scaffold) the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as it had been finished by Michelangelo and as it met the top of the Last Judgement. Note how closely linked were the the generally dark tonalities of the ceiling and the Last Judgement and how in both, the figures advanced towards the viewer from within the prevailing darknesses – the very effects which had been reported by Michelangelo’s contemporaries and recorded in copies made from the earliest days of the ceiling. Note, too, how in the central figure of Jonah, the shadow cast by his left foot could still be seen clearly, even at this considerable optical distance – after four and a half centuries and through whatever degree of dirt was then present. As recalled left, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, likened the cleaning changes to seeing Beethoven turning into Mozart during “a memorable piece of theatre.” Januszczak was even more (debunkingly) delighted with the final result:
The windshield wiper has finished its journey across the greatest painting in Western art. In my opinion it has made that painting substantially greater by celebrating it as the work of of a rational, hardworking, colourful human rather than some sweaty impulsive, God-driven genius.”
Above, Fig. 8: The chapel, as seen when all parts had been cleaned. A comparison of this photograph with that at Fig. 7, shows that the former unity of tones between the Last Judgement and the adjacent ceiling has been ruptured. The darks that had been common to both were vital to the creation of spatial depth and atmosphere. In the not-yet-cleaned section of the ceiling in Fig. 7, it is striking how the architectural elements had seemed brighter, even when their surfaces had not been cleaned. This is because, in art, all values are relative and a given, actual tone can be made lighter or darker simply by altering the values of its neighbouring tones. In the ceiling before cleaning, we see how Michelangelo created pools of darkness in the corners of the intersecting architectural borders so as to evoke recesses from which his figures emerged. After “cleaning”, the previously strong drapery colours are no longer subsumed within overall tonal schemes but float about, catching the eye arbitrarily. This new configuration of effects was deftly described by Charles Hope (see left) as as one in which:
Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion.”
That grandeur and restraint had been hard earned over four years of punishing painting. The uncleaned section of ceiling shown above at Fig.7 was the last part to be painted. It contained Michelangelo’s greatest figural inventions and his most considered and successful orchestrations. It constituted a stupendous finale that for a generation awaited his Last Judgement. Separating the one from the other with chemically-induced tonal and chromatic variations was a dreadful lapse of judgement.
How the Injured Ceiling Came to Britain:
Above, Fig. 9: The cover of the Sunday Times colour magazine of 20 December 1987 carrying a composite juxtaposition of photographs showing the head seen below at Fig. 10, when partly cleaned, partly uncleaned. (There has been some fading on the right-hand edge of this copy of the magazine, but the indication of the relative values of the two states is a fair one.)
Above, Fig. 10: The head of Michelangelo’s ignudo situated above the top left-hand corner of the ceiling panel depicting the Sacrifice of Noah, details of which are shown below at Figs. 48a and 48b, as discussed by Alessandro Conti. Note how in this large plate of 1965, the colours are strong and the modelling is stronger. Note the then survival of the pupil in the man’s left eye. Note the then strength of the locks of hair behind the brow, and the sharpness of the drawing at the nostrils.
Above, Figs. 11a and 11b: The comparison here of a detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling before and after cleaning was published in the Sunday Times magazine on 20 December 1987. It instantly convinced this author that the “cleaning” was damaging on the following grounds: if the after-cleaning state (as shown above right) had truly recovered the original appearance as left by Michelangelo in 1512, there could be no plausible explanation of how the painting might then have progressed towards the greater degrees of finish, modelling and sharpness that were seen (left) to have existed underneath the dirt immediately before the “cleaning”.
The official suggestions that the superior passages of modelling seen before cleaning were fortuitous by-products of accumulations of soot from braziers and candles and from discoloured restorers’ “varnishes” were technically preposterous. The reinforcement of drapery folds with dark shadows (as seen left) is too closely related to the designs to have been accidental. Similarly, no accidental and arbitrary proccesses could have sharpened the drawing of the oak leaves and, even, added veins to the leaves. To any artistically-trained eye, it is self-evident that the post-cleaning state shown here records an abraded version of the original values that had survived underneath all grime until the time of the last restoration.
Moreover, had a disfiguring film been safely removed from an underlying image, the values and relationships that were previously visible in that image underneath the film would have emerged with greatly increased, not diminished, force. The lights would have appeared lighter and the darks darker. Here, more was visible underneath the dirty surface than remained after the cleaning. The difference between the two enables the viewer to callibrate the extent of injury that occurred during the cleaning.
The First British Challenge to the Restoration
Above, Fig. 12: The cover of the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990 which contained Michael Daley’s first article on the Sistine ceiling restoration. Over the next five years, the author published the following material on restorations (and attributions) in Italy and at the National Gallery:
“Quella sporca Sistina”, Europeo, September 1990;
“As Good as New?” The Times Educational Supplement, 18 January 1991;
“Modern conservation techniques always involve element of risk”, The Independent, 20 March 1991;
“Dark Genius Brushed Off by Opal Fruits”, The Independent, 27 April 1991 (a review of Waldemar Januszczak’s book “Sayonara Michelangelo”);
“Daylight Forgery”, The Independent, 17 August 1991;
“Sistine Restoration Remains Veiled in Mystery”, The Journal of Art, September 1991;
“A Crime Against the Artist”, The Independent, 22 November 1991;
“Restoration Drama”, The Times Educational Supplement, 17 April 1992;
“Sistine Restoration”, The Times, letter, 5 June 1992;
“Solvent Abuse”, The Spectator, 30 January 1993;
“White Ties v. White Coats”, The London Review of Books, letter, 11 March 1993;
“Double glazing”, The Spectator, letter, 20 March 1993;
“A Restoration Tragedy”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 4 June 1993;
“Artful Bodgers”, The Sunday Times, 6 June 1993;
“The Varnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1993;
“Clarity on questions of classic restoration”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, letter, 6 May 1994;
“I’m right and you’re wrong on restoration”, Letter, The Art Newspaper, May 1994;
“No anatomical logic in Michelangelo’s defence”, The Independent, 29 September 1994;
“How to Make a Michelangelo”, Art Review, October 1994;
“Michelangelo’s other David”, The Spectator, letter, 15 October 1994;
“Open Letter” [on the National Gallery’s restoration of Holbein’s “the Ambassadors”] Art Review, May 1995;
“Solvent Misuse”, New Scientist, 12 August 1995.
Above, Fig. 13: A photo-comparison of the before and after cleaning appearances of a detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as published in “Michelangelo: Lost or Found?” by Michael Daley in the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990.
Above, Fig. 14: The mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as seen before restoration (left) and after (right). If the detail examined in Figs. 11a and 11b posed problems for supporters of the restoration, this comparison of one of the giant figure groups is crushingly impossible to explain away. Once again, it must be asked: if the cleaned state on the right had constituted a recovery of original painting, by what means had so many tonal values and relations been altered or, even, inverted so that light-on-dark became dark-on-light? By the same token, why did relationships that were previously evident underneath the grime change character and emerge with diminished, not enhanced, pictorial vivacity?
Conflicted Accounts: Shadows V. Non-Shadows
Above, Figs. 15 and 16: Left, the 1993 first edition (publisher: John Murray, London) of “Art Restoration”, showing the Prophet Jonah before cleaning – and, therefore, when still retaining the left foot’s cast shadow, as first recorded before 1534 by Giulio Clovio and as seen here at Fig. 1. Right, the book/catalogue (publisher, National Gallery Publications) for Sir Ernst Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on the depiction of cast shadows in Western art, showing a detail of a painting by a follower of Rembrandt. Gombrich warned his reader/viewers that the book/exhibition would not “offer a coherent history of cast shadows in art”. He was as good as his word: claiming that cast shadows had not been employed by Renaissance artists, he failed to discuss the work of either Michelangelo or Raphael, suggesting by implication that neither had employed cast shadows – when, as will be seen, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Above, Fig. 17: A preview of “Art Restoration” by Martin Gayford in the Daily Telegraph that carried (left) a reproduction of Masaccio’s Saint Peter’s shadow healing a cripple in the fresco cycle at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. One of the most striking features of Masaccio’s short life is that his Brancacci Chapel paintings came to be, as James Beck put it in “Art Restoration”, “copied and studied by the finest masters of the time, headed by Michelangelo, and were thought of as an unofficial school for artists”.
Sir Ernst Gombrich’s Bizarre Historical Disjunction
Above, Fig. 18: The St. Peter incident was a landmark in Gombrich’s Story of Shadows but only insofar as the event “could hardly have been rendered in the idiom of Masaccio’s predecessors”. For Gombrich, this was a great pictorial advance that began and ended immediately with Masaccio, after whom painting became a cast shadows-free zone until the “taboo was lifted in the seventeenth century” by the “pivotal” intervention of Caravaggio. This thesis was perverse and demonstrably untrue. The reason offered for this alleged shadows-free interegnum – specifically for “why so many artists of the Cinquecento withheld their attention from cast shadows” – is said in mystifyingly circular fashion somehow to have been explained by the fact that “There is hardly a function of cast shadows that is not illustrated by Caravaggio’s dramatic painting [ The Supper at Emmaus, here shown at Fig. 27].
Above, Fig. 19: Raphael’s The healing of the lame man. A detail of the St Peter and St John from the Raphael Cartoons in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It must be considered inconceivable that Gombrich was unaware of this image or likely to have been surprised by its echo of Masaccio’s treatment. So why did he neglect Raphael, whose cartoons for the fabled tapestries of the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel constitute one the greatest cycles of the Renaissance? We know that these cartoons were made in full consciousness of Michelangelo’s recently unveiled cast shadows-full Sistine Chapel ceiling, the force of which had so swamped and excited the younger artist that he was said instantly to have put aside all things Perugino. Why, then, drop both of these great masters from an account of cast shadows?
This particular image is potent in many artistic and art historical respects. Where Fabrizio Mancinelli claimed that colour had had for Michelangelo “a primary structural role”; that it had enabled him to “abandon almost altogether traditional chiaroscuro modelling”, we see that Raphael had clearly drawn a very different conclusion. Already, from his Ansidei Madonna of 1505, shown below at Figs. 22 and 23, we know that Raphael enjoyed a perfect grasp of the principles of tonal manipulation to sculptural and spatial ends. We can see here above that he took from Michelangelo the realisation that chiaroscuro was susceptible to immensely monumental and dramatically expressive pictorial purposes; that chiaroscuro itself can be used for a primary structural purpose within picture-making; that its lights and shades could be used not just to describe forms within a figure but to leap about figural groups, accentuating and/or uniting potentially disparate elements within a work’s overarching design; becoming, in short, a pictorially enriching compositional tool as well as a plastically descriptive one.
Leonardo’s Literary Testimony:
Above, Fig. 20: In his depiction of Christ’s charge to St. Peter, Raphael shows the saint’s shadow falling across Christ’s feet and neatly eclipsing the light on the toes of his left foot. This could hardly have been a little-considered feature of so monumental a work.
Against such artistic realities, Gombrich held that Leonardo’s writings provided “impeccable literary testimony” for his contention that Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows. He asserted: “We soon realise that some of the greatest observers of nature appear to have deliberately avoided the cast shadow…they show us a shadowless world” (emphasis added). He then elaborated (without examples): “It looks indeed as if many of these masters had studiously avoided inserting such shadows, as if they regarded them as a disturbing and distracting element in an otherwise coherent and harmonious composition.” (Emphasis added.)
As if? But where is the beef? Gombrich took it to lie in this short passage in Leonardo’s Notes (Trattato della Pittura):
Light too conspicuously cut off by shadows is exceedingly disapproved of by painters. Hence, to avoid such awkwardness when you depict bodies in open country, do not make your figures appear illuminated by the sun, but contrive a certain amount of mist or of transparent cloud to be placed between the object and the sun and thus – since the object is not harshly illuminated by the sun – the outlines of the shadows will not clash with the outlines of the lights.”
And yet we see above that Raphael designed and composed with harsh lights and shadows in open country to be transposed (as below) into fabulously expensive tapestries to be shown on special occasions underneath Michelangelo’s frescoes.
Above, Fig. 21: Above, a detail from the Vatican’s tapestry The conversion of Saul as designed by Raphael and woven by astonishingly talented Flemish weavers. Saul is brilliantly lit by the Light of God and stumbles at its revelatory power. He, the fleeing Christians, and their persecuting soldiers, all have stark shadows cast by God’s radiant light.
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: Details of the National Gallery’s Raphael Ansidei Madonna. Had Gombrich not banished Renaissance cast shadows, he might well have included this picture from the Gallery’s collection in his own exhibition. It comprises a veritable showcase of cast shadow types (- and it did so nearly a hundred years before Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, shown at Fig. 27). As seen in this pre-1938 photograph, there are simple shadows cast by rectilinear blocks; shadows cast by bare feet (which are always tricky things to depict); and, a tour de force demonstration of a cast shadow projected onto the shaded concave surface on the Virgin’s throne that might be taken to constitute a textbook demonstration of Alberti’s instruction that planes should “take their variations from the changing of place and of light”.
Above, Fig. 24: This detail is intriguing. Having to draw lots of fluted barley twist columns is a nightmare in any draughtsman’s book, but Raphael went further, insinuating panels of complex sculptural decoration. Where Michelangelo had confined his putti to flat surfaces (as behind the two Prophets below) Raphael affixes his to doubly curving surfaces. Moreover, many of the carved details of relief are (improbably) shown as if carved in the round, so as to cast their own tiny shadows – as with the vine stems, for example. Might this little self-inflicted labour have been thought by Raphael to constitute a “Protogenes’ Riposte” to the Apelles of his time?
Gombrich’s Great Raphael Joke
Above, Fig 25: Gombrich ran this photo-comparison of Michelangelo’s Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah in his 1987 (republished) essay “The Rhetoric of Attribution ~ a cautionary tale”, where, as discussed opposite, he attributed the Ezekiel – cast shadows and all – to Raphael, while under the influence of Leonardo.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part I
Above, Fig. 26: A detail of Giampietrino’s full-size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. As we will see, Giampietrino is an artist who appears to have been cast into some outer art historical darkness. Where Gombrich adduced evidence from the National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus of 1601 (as shown below) – and in Leonardo’s “impeccable literary testimony” – for why Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows, we find contrary material testimony in this Giampietrino copy, that Leonardo himself, in his Last Supper of 1492-7/8, had been casting solid shadows from his bread, and translucent ones from his glass vessels, when he should have been doing no such thing having outlawed it in his own words while being trapped historically inside Gombrich’s shadowless interregnum.
Gombrich’s Game-Changer
Above, Fig. 27: The National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus may be in better condition than Leonardo’s too-often, too-radically restored Last Supper, and than Michelangelo’s recently restored Sistine ceiling, but there can be no grounds for accrediting him with a single-handled revival of strongly cast shadows, for the first time since Masaccio and Robert Campin, for the good reason that cast shadows had never gone away. Gombrich sees Caravaggio’s cast shadows on the tablecloth as “harsh” and therefore likely to have offended the traditionalists who had preceded him on the grounds that had they known of them they would have judged them to “interfere with the clarity of the composition”. Caravaggio, in Gombrich’s hands thus becomes a kind of “Doctor Who” time traveller, capable of inhibiting those who preceded him by means of his pending example. At the same time, just as soon as he came into artistic existence and influence, “many artists of the seventeenth century were rapidly converted to Caravaggio’s idiom, and the tenebroso (dark) style conquered not only parts of Italy but also whole regions of the north where it culminated in the art of Rembrandt.”
Gombrich seems (on many grounds) not have been familiar with Charles Heath Wilson’s 1881 “Life and Works of Michelanglo Buonarroti”. In that book, when discussing Michelangelo’s use of cast shadows on the ceiling, Wilson wrote: “the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair resemblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.” For these figure/architecture relationships see Figs. 1, 25 and 60.
Graphic Recollections of a Shadowy World
Above, Fig. 28: A detail of Giorgio Ghisi’s early 1570s copy of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl. This engraving establishes that the configuration of tonal relationships around and behind the Sibyl’s head were present within sixty years of the ceiling being unveiled. As seen in the not-recently-restored state of the fresco below, that essential set of relationships had survived for approaching five centuries, and therefore could not have been, as the restorers’ have claimed, a product of arbitrary accretions and disfigurations.
Above, Fig. 29: Consider the content of this pre-cleaned scene of Michelangelo’s. The Sibyl is engrossed in reading a Great Book. Behind the book are two putti. One is lighting a lamp, an activity which may have disturbed the second, who rubs his eyes as if awaking from slumber. The sleepy child is set in deep shadow/darkness. That surrounding gloom throws into relief the Sibyl’s brightly lit head, from which a dramatic shadow is cast on the wall behind. Why then, are these The Shadows That May Not Speak Their Name in Gombrich’s book? Why can art historians and critics no longer see and celebrate the brilliantly inventive and expressive purpose to which they had been put by Michelangelo? Would it really be fanciful heresy to suggest that Michelangelo might have been using lighting effects to expressive ends ahead of Rembrandt? Or, that he was using using light and darkness metaphorically for a portrayal of Spiritual Enlightenment? What purpose is served by truncating Michelangelo’s achievements?
Above, Fig. 30: The contrast between the state above, before the last restoration, and that found here, is astounding. The removal of the shaded zone behind the Sibyl has left the sleepy putto dark-skinned against a light, scrubbed-down wall – yet another inversion of artistic values, and not an enhancement of the previously existing values. Reading the three images above in sequence, we see a progressive diminuition of tonal strengths and variations. This phenomenon of the “stone-washed jeans syndrome” is virtually a given in pictures that fall too frequently under the swabs of restorers. It should be acknowledged that there is evidence of injuries before the last cleaning: in the 19th century, the painter Charles Heath Wilson complained of secco work on the ceiling having been destroyed in places after being “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. But the downwards optical jump of values is greater between the pre and post-cleaning photographs of the last restoration, when the scientists-backed “labouring men” of our times decided that none of the secco was Michelangelo’s and removed it all with watery gels containing two “caustics”, one of which brightened the colours, while the other dulled them.
A Restorer in Denial
Above, Figs. 31 and 32: The Erythraean Sibyl’s head before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). When we published the above comparison in 1993 (in “Art Restoration”), we came under fire in an Art Newspaper review of April 1994: “Vandals or saviours. Are scientists helping to destroy the world’s art? Helen Glanville, a restorer with an historical perspective, challenges the latest accusation made against her profession”.
Above, Fig. 33: As seen above, Glanville, complained of a caption that had read “…before cleaning, and afterwards with shading lost” and suggested an alternative reading: “the discoloured glue layers masked the high finish and subtlety of Michelangelo’s modelling, emphasising deepest shadow and highlighting and obliterating the delicate transition tones.” The suggestion was without merit: discoloured layers do not simultaneously brighten lights and darken darks in a fashion that enhances sculptural legibility. To the contrary, we repeat, they compress ranges of values and they reduce tonal vivacity.
If we look more closely into the two states of the head, as seen in the three pairs of comparative details below, we find specific differences that cannot possibly be explained away on a discoloured varnish hypothesis.
Above, Figs 34 (top) and 35: Discoloured varnish (superimposed on the after cleaning state) could not have shaded the corner of the mouth with dark hatched lines so as to cause it tuck into the forms of the face. Nor could it have redrawn the apperture of the nostril so as to enlarge it. Nor could it have arranged itself into hatched vertical lines so as to shade the slumbering putto to the right and throw the lit profile of the Sibyl’s face into relief.
Above, Figs. 36 (left) and 37: Discoloured varnish could not have improved the internal modelling encountered in the ear. It could not have drawn a sharp line around the ear lobe. One could go on because there is scarcely a detail that had not been embellished and clarified by Michelangelo. There is below yet another category of changes that Glanville overlooked.
Above, Figs. 38 (left) and 39: Michelangelo had changed the design of the head with his secco revisions. The plaited “pony tail” had been greatly enlarged and strengthened; the back of the neck had been extended and shaded so as to throw it into relief against the lighter architectural zone. Such changes are only ever products of artistic intent and purpose. They should never be mistaken for dirt and removed.
The Testimony of Brilliant Lighting Effects within the Graphic Tradition:
Above, Fig. 40: In his account of cast shadows, Gombrich joins the stream of graphic depictions in 1604 with a British Museum image (by Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz) that illustrates the fable of The Cave of Plato. (It is a philosophically interesting example, for sure, but it leapfrogs by half a century the brilliantly lit compendium of cast shadows set within Plato’s “academy” as shown below.) Had Gombrich begun with Georgio Ghisi’s suite of six engravings made in the early 1570s after Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls (including that of the Erythraean Sibyl shown above in detail at Fig. 28) the thesis of his National Gallery “Shadows” exhibition would have collapsed under the weight of its own implausibility. Every one of Ghisi’s engravings (made when the ceiling was only sixty years old) records strongly cast shadows that had survived well – if not intact – on the ceiling until the last restoration, as can be seen in Fig. 29.
Gombrich’s Neglected Graphic Testimony:
Above, Fig. 41: Enea Vico’s engraving of 1550 showing the studio or “academy” of Michelanglo’s rival Baccio Bandinelli. The testimony of such engraved records, like that of Giampietrino’s paintings, has been too little heeded in general terms, and was quite disastrously disregarded in the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting.
This copy is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which comments that Bandinelli had commissioned the engraving specifically to:
celebrate his achievements and pretensions as a teacher and man of learning. Vico conceived the artist’s workshop not as it must have looked but rather as a gentlemanly room peopled with industrious assistants in fashionable dress. Bandinelli himself appears at the extreme right in a garment adorned with a badge of knighthood, a sign of the rank he had recently received from Charles V. By equipping the studio with books and antiquities, Vico presents the making of art as an intellectual enterprise, and by naming the studio an “academy,” he associates it with Plato’s famous school. The foreground is strewn with classical statuary and human bones appropriate for anatomical study. Brilliant lamplight and flickering firelight cast evocative shadows and illuminate the figures bent over their work. Some of their poses and groupings are reminiscent of Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, an analogy that further exalts the character of Bandinelli’s enterprise.”
A Second Stream of Testimony
The comments are fair and the reference to the depicted uses of brilliant light, highlights a widespread failure to recognise the remarkably dramatic lighting effects made by Michelangelo for all to see on the Sistine ceiling – and their great influence on his contemporaries. On the testimony of Vico’s engraved output alone, as seen above and below, the lie is given to the “shadowless world” advanced by Gombrich in his 1995 National Gallery exhibition. It is particularly to be regretted that such streams of artistic testimony are disregarded when they can have such direct bearing on the “conservation” of works of art. For one thing, their testimony is peculiarly reliable, owing to the fact that their unvarnished existences do not invite the adulterations of restorers.
Above, Fig. 42: If art historians can see connections between Michelangelo’s colours and those of the later Mannerists, why do they miss the connections between his systems of light and shadow and the brilliant working of that legacy in Mannerist print-makers? In Vico’s Mars and Venus a light every bit as brilliant as that seen in Gombrich’s choice above, at Fig. 40, is present. And, as for shadows, almost every last detail in the foreground (slippers, doves, cat, dog) sports its own cast shadow.
Above, Fig. 43: Gombrich’s second graphic example is a marvellously lucid and elegant image, but, again, it is one that helps moves his narration even further away from the Renaissance to 1684, when it appeared as an illustration within Roger de Piles’ “Elémens de la Peinture Pratique.” That particular graphic example had the virtue of linking to some nice definitions from Filippo Baldinucci’s “Vocabulario Toscano dell’Arte Designo” of 1681: “Shadow: The Darkness created by opaque bodies on the opposite side of the illuminated part”…”Shadow: In the language of painters it is generally understood to refer to more or less dark colour which serves in painting to give relief by gradually becoming lighter”…”Cast Shadow (sbattimento) is the shadow that is caused on the ground or elsewhere by the depicted object…” Again, this further throws the reader off the scent of the High Renaissance and its actual practices of depiction and its associated uses of cast shadows.
Michelangelo, of course, could not have known de Piles but he could hardly not have known Alberti’s “Della pittura” of 1435-6 – and what great pertinence that treatise might have had to Gombrich’s own ostensible, object of inquiry: over and above the great virtues of colours in painting, Alberti maintained, the uses of black and white were sovereign:
It is worth all your study and diligence to know these two [black and white paints] well, because light and shade make things appear in relief. Thus white and black make painted things appear in relief and win that praise which was given to Nicias the Athenian painter. They say that Zeuxis, a most famous antique painter, was almost the leader of the others in knowing the force of light and shade; little much praise was given to the others. I almost always consider mediocre the painter who does not understand well the strength of every light and shade in each plane. I say the learned and the unlearned praise those faces which, as though carved, appear to issue out of the panel…”
Could any head have better exemplified the wisdom of Alberti’s observations than Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl? And had Paolo Giovio not celebrated the fact that Michelangelo had given “such great emphasis to the light in contrast to the shade that even knowledgeable artists were induced to believe in the truth of the figures he painted and to see what was flat as solid”? Had not Vasari marvelled at Michelangelo’s precise ability to portray even “the divine majesty” in “the firm and tangible terms that human beings understand”? Had not Vasari further disclosed that Michelangelo “first made models in clay or wax, and from these, because they remain stationary, he took the outlines, the lights and the shadows, rather than from the living model”? In 1525 Giovio had testified that Michelangelo “used a gradually diminishing light to suggest some figures in the distance, almost hidden”. Condivi (in reality a mouthpiece for Michelangelo himself, it has been suggested) held the Prophet Jonah, who sprang from the centre top of the Last Judgement, the “most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of the light and the shadow the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eyes and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.” Vasari was no less impressed: “Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting springs forward, following the line of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which ends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”
Above, top, Fig. 44 (detail) and 45: Cornelis Bos’ copy of 1530-50 of Michelangelo’s (now lost) Leda and the Swan.
One of the miracles of drawn copies in black on white is the virtuosity and precision with which tones can be calibrated, orchestrated and fixed. Not only does this copy convince us that Michelangelo had used cast shadows on his (late) panel painting, but that he had indeed employed tones as a means of establishing aerial perspective: note how the two putti (as so often on the Sistine ceiling) are set in deep shadow and themselves toned down markedly vis-a-vis the limbs of Leda. Does the artfully thrown (and shaded) drape behind the action not itself testify to a vast indebtedness to this picture, by Bronzino in his great allegory of c. 1540-5 Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time?
Above, Fig. 46: the National Gallery’s painted copy of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan, as seen in 1964.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part II
Above, Fig. 47: The National Gallery’s Christ carrying his Cross by Giampietrino, c.1510-30, oil on panel.
The significance of this painting by a close follower of Leonardo has been underplayed at the National Gallery and more generally overlooked by art historians. (For a fuller discussion, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration”.) It has an especial significance with regard to Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on cast shadows in Western painting.
The Leonardo Connection
Giampietrino was a close and trusted associate of Leonardo. He painted the full sized copy of the Last Supper that the Royal Academy loaned to Milan so that it might inform the massive amounts of repainting that took place during the last restoration.
Note that this picture consists of generally dark values against which the figure is (relatively) brilliantly illuminated. The light does not fall on Christ as if through some hypothesized cloud or mist. It does so dramatically and selectively. A trio of brightest lights pick out Christ’s right brow and cheek, his shoulder, and his forearm – across which, at the wrist, the dramatically cast shadow from his shoulder falls in defiance of Leonardo’s injunction to avoid clashing outlines of shadows and lights – much as it was ignored by Raphael on the Christ’s left arm as seen in Fig. 20. There was a peculiarly poignant irony in Gombrich’s failure to attend to the testimony of this painting.
While Gombrich’s show was running, this painting was one of two Giampietrinos undergoing restoration and technical investigation. This painting confirmed (for reasons given opposite) that Gombrich’s objections to the National Gallery’s cleaning policy during the 1950s and 1960s had been perfectly well founded. Those findings were published the following year in the National Gallery’s annual Technical Bulletin but the Gallery neglected to draw Gombrich’s attention to this vindicating research (see below, left).
The Contorted Testimony
Having contended, against so much contrary graphic and pictorial evidence, that cast shadows in painting had popped out of existence during the High Renaissance, Gombrich then claimed, that they re-emerged every bit as swiftly in the painting of Caravaggio as they had disappeared after Masaccio. That Gombrich’s method here should have been so profoundly “un-Gombrichian” was sad to behold, but such was his esteem and aura that he appeared to sweep all along with him.
Credulous Critics
It seemed as if the merest incantation of the art term that has become such a fetish in recent scholarship – Tenebrism – could dissolve all critical faculties. Richard Cork of the Times, a strong supporter of the Sistine ceiling restoration (and that of Leonardo’s Last Supper), swallowed and regurgitated the specious bait whole:
A superb small show at the National Gallery, where the eminent art historian E. H. Gombrich opens our eyes to the shadows cast in Western art. Surprisingly few painters included shadows in the Renaissance for fear of spoiling the harmony of their compositions. But then Caravaggio arrived, acting like a dramatic lighting director who revels in extremes of brightness and gloom…The show is a quiet revelation, which makes us look at the rest of the National Gallery’s collection in a new light.”
Alessandro Conti on Domenico Carnevale’s Match with Michelangelo:
Above, Fig. 48a: Michelangelo’s Noah’s Sacrifice before the last restoration, and as published in Alessandro Conti’s “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art”, London, 2007. Large sections of this passage had fallen away when the ceiling was only 53 years old. The losses here were repaired (as with that shown in Fig. 6) by the painter Domenico Carnevale. Conti described Carnevale’s repairs in the following terms:
As a result of the subsidence of 1565, an actual reintegration of the intonaco [and hence paint layer] had been necessary in the vault painted by Michelangelo. Between 1566 and 1572, the vast loss in the intonaco in Noah’s Sacrifice was made good by a little known painter: Domenico Carnevale da Modena. If one examines the restoration without insisting on a comparison with Michelangelo’s original, it is difficult not to be impressed by the qualities of this 16th century master. For the reconstruction of the figures, it is possible that he was able to make use of drawings and other graphic documentation, whilst in the handling of the paint he showed the ability – particular to restorers – not to imitate the original technique, but to make allowances in his integration for his work to be seen from below. To do this, Carnevale used large strokes, as featureless as possible, with which he reconstructed an image which is somewhat anonymous in as much as it did not have any distinctive handling characteristics of its own, but which succeeded admirably in fitting in with the original paint.”
Given the close and effective matching of values in this large section of painting, we can all the more confidently take the presently seen mismatch between Carnevale and Michelangelo’s work at Fig. 6, to be a confirmation of lost original secco painting in that zone.
A similar mismatch emerged in this zone (as seen below in the leg at Fig. 48b). Although the mismatches are not as pronounced in flesh sections as in draperies, we can see that Carnevale’s repair in buon fresco to the upper leg no longer matches the surviving general tonality of the lower leg. The restorers have claimed that this mismatch is indicative of the general levels of dirt on the ceiling at the time. Even if that were true, it would not account for the shaded modelling on the sides of the upper leg with which Carnevale had effected the seamless match with Michelangelo’s then surviving passages of painting, as seen above at Fig. 48a.
Damage to the Sistine Chapel’s Cycles of Painting:
Above, Figs. 49 (top) and 50: It is easiest to demonstrate injuries with details, but the greatest injury done the Chapel was in terms of the relationships that had been established through time between the larger component parts – the decorated surfaces of it walls and ceiling, to which, too little attention has been paid. The promotional hype that accompanied the restoration as it ran into opposition, sold a single narrow, partial, pictorial narrative: that of the Glorious Recovery of Unanticipated Original Colouring. If we pan out from the single technical proof of injury to Michelanglo’s paintings, the repair made by Carnevale (above, top Fig. 49) – we see above at Fig. 50 how this group of figures, before cleaning, had played a secondary role in an outer (relative) darkness. Moving down to Fig. 51 below, we see how the centrepiece of the (curving triangular) section in which they were set, consisted of the astonishingly inventive and brightly lit figure of the crucified Haman.
Above, Fig. 51: This view of a corner of the chapel before the last wave of restorations gives some indication of the disruption of the living, accreted history of the interior. On the right of the photograph is the wall of the Last Judgement. It will be noticed that this wall is not architecturally linked to the chapel’s side wall. This is because in preparing the wall for his great painting, Michelangelo obliterated all architectural continuities (blocking in windows and even obliterating some of his own earlier painting – the two lunettes around the original windows), so as to prepare a single flat “canvas”, as it were, for himself. To the left of the altar wall we see the survival of chapel’s architectural features. It is striking how, before restorations, this wall had broken down into horizontally discrete architectural zones or bands with distinct pictorial/decorative characters.
The bottom zone (not visible in the photograph but included in Figs. 53 and 54, below) consists of a simple trompe l’oeil depiction of hanging drapery. On this section, the Raphael tapestries, the cartoons for which are housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, are occasionally displayed.
On the section above them (as seen here at the bottom), are individual scenes painted in their own perspectives which “puncture” the surface integrity of the wall with their aerial depths. They are however, bound together by emphatic framing sections of illusionistic architectural decoration that partially re-assert the architectural integrity of the wall.
Above that band there is a sequence depicting pairs of former popes that flank each window. In this passage the integrity of the wall is asserted generally but periodically punctured by the illusionistic niches which house the figures of the popes like sentries in their boxes.
Immediately above that tonally light and rather decorously treated band, Michelangelo and pictorial fireworks commence. Michelangelo ruptures the (variously) maintained architectural integrity of the wall in two key respects. He peoples this lower band of his painting (the lunettes – the sections of wall that surround the windows) with seated figures of a greatly increased scale and vastly more monumental treatment. Crucially, he situates these giant figures (the ancestors of Christ) in optical recesses that push the walls backwards. Against these perceptually re-situated walls, Michelangelo cast giant shadows so as further to assert both the monumentally substantial physical presence of the figures and their “commanding” occupation of their own space and their own lighting systems.
The zone above constitutes the beginning of the vault of the ceiling, and on this section, resting above the junctions between the lunettes, Michelangelo placed his most monumental figures of all, his twelve Seers comprised of seven Prophets and five Sibyls.
The consequence of all this, was that before restoration there existed a kind of archaeological stratification of historically and artistically separate layers with distinct conceptual/architectural/pictorial characters – a living history. What uncomprehending violence was to be done to those accreted variations in just a couple of decades.
Above, Fig. 52: Here we see a wall/ceiling conjunction after cleaning and its then relationship with the not-yet cleaned Last Judgement. The most striking feature here is the extent to which the wall/ceiling paintings have been “de-materialised”; the extent to which the surfaces of the building are exerting their own presences more strongly than before.
As in so many instances and regards, Charles Wilson provides an invaluably informed and visually acute firsthand witness:
Before entering upon the subjects of Michelangelo’s method of painting or principles of colour, the disposition of the chiaroscuro, which he has maintained throughout the whole of the frescos, must be noticed.
The light proceeds from the painted apertures in the ceiling and falls with equal diffusion downwards on all sides.
The horizontal shadows of the architecture are very precisely and decidedly marked, but the angular cast shadows are are modified and softened because otherwise they would have confused with their sharp angles, the general decorative divisions of the design.
On the other hand the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with a Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair semblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.
The backgrounds of the lunettes are darker than those of the figures of the vault, as are the grounds of the merely ornamental figures in the angles above, and those below the Prophets and Sibyls form a basement to the brilliant chiaroscuro of the arcade.
The effect of the chiaroscuro in the scenes in the open panels has been very aerial, increased by the powerful light and shade of the figures close to those openings.
When first painted, the arrangement of the chiaroscuro must have produced a brilliant effect, now centirely obscured, but which no doubt might still be in a great measure restored…”
Note, however, that Wilson had complained of dirt, dust and cobwebs upon the paintings but not of “glue-varnishes” slathered on by persons un-named, unknown and of whom no records exist (as was admitted to us in 1990). The glue/size painting was easy to identify and was almost entirely by Michelangelo’s own hand. Note also that, having described the injuries to the secco work made by an earlier restorer, Wilson was especially concerned that any attempted cleaning might inflict further injury on the highly water-sensitive size-painting.
The Persisting Atmospheric Pollution
Above, Fig. 53: Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian (Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy). It may well be the case that the apparently bleached-out condition of the wall and ceiling paintings is something of a “trick of the light”, but to our knowledge, no photograph of the chapel taken before the last restoration ever showed anything approaching this general tonality. And that is for a good reason: everything that had been found on the surface of the frescoes was removed, including Michelangelo’s own size painting with finely ground black pigments. This photograph also testifies without any ambiguity to the densely packed throngs of visitors (up to 20,000 each day, it was then said) whose presence is converting the chapel’s micro-climate into a toxic environmental stew that threatens to consume what has been left of the frescoes.
Below, Fig. 54, Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown on the 21 May 2013 Mailonline where it is reported that visitor numbers can now reach as many as 30,000 a day.
The National Gallery’s Stripped-Down Paintings:
Above, Fig. 55: Gombrich included the National Gallery’s Pontormo of c. 1518, Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, in his “Shadows” exhibion. It was a curious “own-goal” choice, given that it abounds with cast shadows. Had Gombrich wished to make another point, he might have drawn attention to the debilitating changes inflicted on this work in the name of its “restoration”.
Above, Fig. 56 (top) and 57: The detail of the Pontormo immediately above and as included in Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition, looks very different from its earlier pre-restoration self (as seen top). The details shown above and below left were photographed for a book of details from pictures in the National Gallery in 1938 by its then director, Kenneth Clark. Clark’s details were re-photographed for new, 1990 edition of his book. The then National Gallery director, Neil MacGregor, noted that many of the pictures had since been cleaned and that Clark himself had been “fearful of what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Many of the paintings were now, MacGregor noted, “different in critical respects from the paintings Clark discussed”. MacGregor further noted that the reader able to compare the plates in the two editions “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” but he gave no clues as to losses or gains. A crucial difference between the before and after cleaning states is the grievous loss of the former brilliant orchestration of lights and shades which had constituted such a proof of Pontormo’s indebtedness to Michelangelo.
Above left, Figs. 58a and 59a, details before cleaning; above right, Figs. 58b and 59b details after cleaning: It is evident in these further details, that this painting endured much restoration treatment after 1938. It was cleaned (in secret) during the Second World War in 1940, and again in 1981-82. In the latter cleaning “discoloured varnish and retouchings” were removed with “propan-2-ol and white spirit”. This was reported to have left in place “a thick greyish layer of surface dirt and varnish remnants”…It was removed with “a potassium oleate soap”, and the whole was finished off with “pigments in Paraloid B-72″ and a “Ketone-N” synthetic varnish. In the details of the boy’s head we see how the picture has been left more transparent, more like its own Infra-red photographs, as underdrawing now floats into view.
The Mutilation of Michelangelo’s Finest Sibyl:
Below, Fig. 60: The Libyan Sibyl, before cleaning (large) and after cleaning (inset). With reference to Fig. 4, above, note the catastrophic removal of dark toning and shading around the Sibyl’s right foot, from which formerly sprang such a vivid cast shadow. The final stages of Michelangelo’s painting on this great figure (and all others on the ceiling) were taken for varnish and removed in their entirety on this (official) prescription:
…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours.
Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”
For a full account of the ceiling’s injuries, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, The Business and The Scandal”, London 1993 and 1996, New York 1994 and 1996, by James Beck and Michael Daley. For a celebration of the “restored” ceiling, see “Michelangelo ~ the Vatican Frescoes” by Pierluigi de Vecchi, Professor of art history at the university of Macerata, and Gianluigi Colalucci, Chief Restorer, Vatican Laboratory for the restoration of paintings, Papal monuments, Museums and Galleries, New York, London and Paris 1996.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


4 March 2013

The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II:
How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes

I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, 1990

We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.

The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57″. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.

On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.

The Experimental New Picture Cleaning Method

AB 57 was developed by Professor Paulo Mora and his wife Laura Mora, chief conservators at Rome’s Istituto Centrale del Restauro, for cleaning stone buildings. It comprised: “a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of a solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water.” Toti Scialoja, a painter and a former professor at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, complained that its ingredients were “too powerful – ammonia and soda, the stuff you use to clean your bathtub”. Professor Christoph Frommel, director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, described it as “a sharp and aggressive chemical”.

The Moras presented AB 57 as a means of removing insoluble salts and incrusted materials from wall paintings: “If the original surface of the painting is unaffected by water then this mixture will have no deleterious action on it”. Michelangelo’s frescoes did not suffer greatly from incrusted and insoluble salts but they were extensively covered with water sensitive glue/size painting which artists, conservation experts and scholars held to comprise Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments. An early sign of the wrongness of the new cleaning method came when the restorers abandoned customary claims of a miraculous “recovery” of original and authentic conditions. The use of AB 57 had produced such a mismatch between the cleaned frescoes and the early copies that had been made of them, that the hype had to be bolder and of a different order. As seen in our previous post, the decision to clean with AB 57 had been taken quickly and in express excitement at the prospect of overturning art history itself. This dramatic technology-led change of conservation philosophy was reported in a 1983 Newsweek account: “As recently as 1976 while cleaning paintings by the other artists on the side walls of the Chapel, workers deliberately kept the colours muted so that Michelangelo’s wouldn’t look too faded by comparison. ‘Even then it entered nobody’s head to start on Michelangelo’, says master restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. But when a new cleaning solvent was developed, Colalucci tested it…”

Selling the Surprising AB 57-induced Changes to Michelangelo’s Painting

Having used it, the resulting rupture between the old Michelangelo and his restored self was trumpeted by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the Vatican Museums’ curator and co-director, with Gianluigi Colalucci, of the restoration. Mancinelli claimed in 1986 that the restoration “had brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist, a colourist quite different in character from the unnaturally sombre character who has in the past fascinated generations of historians, connoisseurs and fellow artists…The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” (“The Sistine Chapel ~ Michelangelo Rediscovered”, p. 218.)

Even though no evidence was ever produced of extensive glue applications having been made by restorers, in the early years, art historians and credulous art critics queued to repudiate what one scholar dubbed the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of traditional Michelangelo studies. The proclaimed “New Michelangelo”, however, was an entirely modern chemically engineered artefact, not a scholarly construct. In fact, it flew in the face of the historical record: Michelangelo had been celebrated at his own funeral not for any colouristic brilliance – let alone for, as one critic recently held, the “sharp and acid palette used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” – but for his “fleeting, sombre colours”. The new art historical dispensation rested on a twentieth century purging of aged, sometimes distressed but nonetheless authentic material. Indeed, it was precisely because this was not a historically-informed recovery of an original state that drums had had to be rolled for “The New Michelangelo”.

It was claimed that this revisionist reading of historical and material evidence had been corroborated “scientifically”. But this was a New Science to sanction a New Michelangelo. Scientific examinations of the frescoes in the 1930s by X-ray and ultra-violet imaging techniques had led to altogether contrary conclusions. It was reported in 1938 that Michelangelo’s “overpaintings were lying quite brightly a secco on the fresco layer itself; these overpaintings proved themselves undoubtedly the painting of the Master himself.” (See “Art Restoration”, Chapter III.) It was further claimed that Colalucci and his colleagues had recovered the original fresco surfaces so deftly that they had preserved its “original” patina and even left a thin layer of dirt above them that would protect the new surface from airborne pollution. Well, we all now know from the present panic in the Vatican that that assurance was not worth a used solvent swab and that a couple of years ago “unimaginable amounts” of dirt were scrubbed off the frescoes by conservators working at night so as not to impede the daytime tourism stream.

The Over-Selling of Conservation Science

Conservation science has its uses but it can never analyse or appraise works of art because Art’s essential properties are aesthetic not material; perceptual not mechanical. Insofar as there might be a science of art, it is to be found in art itself and within artists’ own practices. This is because art consists not so much of materials as of values and the relationships between values that artists’ create and orchestrate, albeit, with materials. These values are aesthetically relative, not intrinsic to materials, and they are continuously appraised and adjusted by artists as they work. Self-criticism, self-analysis and continuous aesthetic appraisal are integral to the making of art. With art, critical and analytical faculties can never be replaced by apparatuses or be donned by technicians. Conservation science might sometimes tell us of what something is made but never by whom it was made.

The Mis-Appliance of Conservation Science

In terms of professional art restoration, conservation science can serve a useful diversionary purpose. The restoration-authorising authorities and art lovers alike can be invited to put aside critical responses on an implicit assurance that some inscrutable but infallible force has guaranteed the probity of whichever of the many conflicting restoration methodologies is being used at that moment. We ArtWatchers are not inclined to be so trusting nor so easily led. In the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, having examined evidence of the cleaning method and its consequences for two and a half decades, and being now armed with the officially published accounts, we are confident that not only can it be shown that Michelangelo’s tonal/plastic systems were recently injured, but that even his very designs, his drawing, his vaunted disegno were repeatedly violated and corrupted.

A Catastrophic Loss of Art Citical Nerve

These losses and violations were not so much unfortunate by-products of an inappropriately aggressive cleaning agent as the consequence of prior and catastrophic failures of art critical judgement and powers of aesthetic analysis. This failure was evident not only within the Vatican’s curatorial, scientific and conservation staffs, but throughout much of the wider international art historical establishment. By effectively agreeing to “de-attribute” what were – and had always been recognised to be – the last stages of Michelangelo’s own work, an overly deferential art historical establishment sanctioned their destruction. For all this (initial) pan-national consensus, the judgement was historically rogue. In 1986, when defending his own restoration, the chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci admitted that his professional predecessors’ judgements had been contrary to his own and “not encouraging” to the restoration. That was an understatement: restorers who had worked on the previous restoration (1935-36) had officially and flatly reported that Michelangelo had “finished off a secco”, that is, that he had painted on top of his frescoes when they had dried.

The Testimony of Charles Heath Wilson

Restorers who had worked on the restoration of 1904 had abandoned attempts to clean the frescoes for fear of damaging Michelangelo’s vulnerable work on the surface. Colalucci, greatly in thrall to contemporary “scientific” analysis, dismissed such official reports as “subjective impressions”. He also ignored the testimony of the British painter and fresco expert Charles Heath Wilson who had reported his own close-hand examination of the ceiling in an 1876 book “Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarotti”. Wilson had found the frescoes “extensively retouched with size colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”. He found that this secco painting “readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size probably made according to the usage of the time from parchment shavings.” He further noted, “The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour …These retouchings…constituted the finishing process or as Condivi [Michelangelo’s preferred biographer] expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’.”

For Wilson, there could “be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in only one part was there evidence of a later and incompetent hand.” Aside from its artistic force, certainty about the secco painting’s antiquity lay in an elegant technical proof: “The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked”. It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers touched it. If, as has been claimed, later restorers had repeatedly applied glues, those glues would inevitably have been brushed into the pre-existing cracks. Wilson, who tested the depth of the cracks with a penknife, saw that none had been. Artists like Wilson appreciate that it is impossible to paint over a cracked surface without working the material into the cracks. Wilson was left in no doubt: having been applied when the ceiling was new and not-yet-cracked, these surface glue paints could only have been Michelangelo’s own work, his finishing stages, his l’ultima mano. Normally, restorers recognise that when varnishes or paints can be shown to have run into age-cracked materials this can be taken as a proof of their more recent origins. On this occasion, the restorers failed to recognise the implications of the converse.

The Vulnerability of Michelangelo’s Glue Painting

Moreover, this original secco work, Wilson appreciated, was water-sensitive, having been damaged when “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. As to when the alleged restorers’ glue-varnishes might plausibly have been applied, no evidence was forthcoming. In 1996 Colalucci said that although “countless attempts at cleaning and restoration seem to have been made”, only “four are actually accounted for”. The four are of 1566, 1824-25, 1904 and 1935-36. As we showed in our post of 1 April 2011, that first restoration itself provided the clearest possible evidence of Michelangelo having painted shadows a secco. That evidence, taken together with the copies of the ceiling discussed opposite should have been an end to the matter. The last two restorations cited by Colalucci coincide with photographic records and these, too, offer no support for the claimed superimpositions of secco painting and glue-varnishes by restorers.

Perplexed by the Vatican’s unwavering but evidently unsupported insistence that the ceiling had repeatedly been coated with glue “varnishes”, I asked in May 1990: “Does any documentary evidence exist to support the claim that hot animal glue was repeatedly applied to the frescoes over the centuries in order to revive the colours?” Colalucci replied that there was none. In 1986 he had reported a note in a manuscript which described how the ceiling had once been cleaned with linen rags and bread “scrubbing hard, and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, the bread was moistened a little” but added “That is as much as it says. The note does not mention at all the use of substances to revive colours or of glue varnish.” (See “Art Restoration”, pp. 74-78.) If, as Wilson discovered, the secco painting dissolved at the touch of a wet finger, an earlier hard scrubbing with wet rags or bread would certainly have been sufficient to cause the injuries that Wilson and others had reported to parts of the ceiling.

A Filmed Corroboration of Wilson’s Testimony

Wilson’s appraisal was echoed from another scaffold a century later. In 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream”. Alexander Eliot reported in the April 1987 Harvard Review how “with the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault clearly came from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable. Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles stand in contrast to tremendous swirls of colour…” On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious, now historical, record still awaits a re-showing.

Venanzo Crocetti’s Protests Against the Restoration – as a Sculptor and as a Former Restorer in the Sistine Chapel

In 1989 the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti, who had spent “four full years” working during the 1930s as an apprentice restorer on the scaffold, published three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes in an article in the December Oggi e Domani (“Salviamo Almeno il Giudizio Universale”) – see Fig. 28. Crocetti’s account was detailed and technically informed. He began by explaining how he had appealed unavailingly in 1983 to the director general of the Vatican Museums, Prof. Carlo Pietrangeli, to desist from incurring the “rapid biological degradation caused by the cleaning power” of AB 57. Crocetti flatly dismissed claims that the glues had been applied by restorers. He also testified that as early as 1983 applications of AB 57 had been standardised at 3 minutes each, regardless of local conditions (see below). He complained of the folly of cleaning aggressively in small patches, zones that had originally been made with very broad applications. These glue-paint applications, he noted, had been made chiefly in the shaded parts of the figures and to such artistically selective purpose that Michelangelo’s authorship was beyond question. As a (formerly) supreme case in point, see Fig. 1.

The Effects of the Double Applications of AB 57

Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method then being used on Michelangelo was particularly damning. He noted that while the first 3 minutes long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day, left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the solvents to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones.

He considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear – see Fig. 28. He believed that the ferocity of AB 57 made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed (in particular, see Figs. 11-16). Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes remained “excellent”, and that this was in part due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s, he found himself near to despair.

The Invasive Ferocity and Likely Legacy of AB 57

The AB 57 water-based paste used to remove Michelangelo’s size painting contained two “caustics”: sodium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. Professor Frommel had questioned the method of application: “Who knows if they succeed in cleaning this completely away? No one can prove whether or not it will affect the frescoes in the future. No one can say definitely if they get all of it off.” Consider Colalucci’s own account of the method of application:

The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”

Chemically Adjusting Michelangelo’s Colours

AB 57, a calcium dissolving solvent, was thus used to remove organic materials with an oven-cleaner like ferocity and speed even though many experts held those very materials to comprise authentic Michelangelo work. Contrary to assurances otherwise, the aesthetic consequences of this stripping extended, as Crocetti had observed at first hand, into the very fabric of the exposed fresco surfaces. This was a serious matter. The Vatican’s research chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli had explained that AB 57 contained two separate salts because while “Ammonium Carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up”. The Moras’ combination, he judged, had “the proper chromatic effect”. So far as we know, it was never explained by what means the “proper” combination for Michelangelo might have been established.

Juggling with dangerous chemicals and processes constitutes professional chic in some restoration quarters. Restorers often claim that a dangerous chemical in “safe hands” is better than a mild one in “untrained hands”. When restorers speak among themselves, the professional conceits are more evident. The IIC Bulletin carried an obituary on Paolo Mora who died on 27 March 1998. He had studied under Mauro Pelliccioli, who restored Leonardo’s Last Supper, and, reportedly, was fond of claiming that he could clean a picture with a broom and drugstore chemicals. When he found himself too busy to clean a large Bellini altarpiece, Pelliccioli enlisted two students and showed them how to dissolve rods of caustic soda in water. He demonstrated his cleaning technique by sweeping a swab of soda over the picture with one hand followed immediately by a “neutralising” swipe with a turpentine swab with the other. Thus enlightened, the students were said to have “cleaned the large painting in a single day”.

The AB 57 Rinse-Water Menace

Aside from exposing the stripped fresco surfaces to the Chapel’s notoriously polluted atmosphere, yet other risks were taken in pursuit of brighter colours. Removing the water-based solvent gel with copious amounts of washing risked, as Frommel feared and Crocetti had observed, depositing corrosive ingredients within the frescoes. The “highly soluble” ingredients were said to have been selected because “they are easy to wash off”. It was certainly desirable that they should be so: carboxymethyl cellulose is known to encourage sodium retention; ‘Desogen’, being a detergent as well as fungicide, is non-volatile and does not evaporate. The Moras had conceded that these ingredients have “the disadvantage of remaining in the painting unless removed after treatment by rinsing with water”.

There are problems with washing, however. First, the rinse water was absorbed deeply into the porous fresco and with it, inevitably, particles of soluble and corrosive ingredients. Twenty four hours were needed for the water to evaporate before a second application of AB 57 could be applied. Second, tap water may contain solutions of sodium, iron, copper, and chloride, and unless it is packed with sufficient calcium bicarbonate, will itself attack the calcium carbonate of fresco. Even distilled water (which is free of impurities) slowly dissolves calcium carbonate and attacks the frescoes’ structure. When challenged in 1991 on having introduced dangerous materials into the frescoes, Colalucci replied: “AB 57…has been greatly tested and is very old. The actual solvent is held within a gel which does not allow the particles of the actual solvent to penetrate the plaster and the colour. However, the gel is removed and only a minimal (if any) percentage might remain which has no influence on the colours.” In 1986 Colalucci disclosed that, at that date “The work was concluded with abundant rinsing, repeated at intervals of up to several months” and that only “The last rinsing was done with distilled water”. Much copious washing was thus carried out with tap water.

Mirella Simonetti on Dangerous Deposits and their Air-Borne Allies

Far from having “no influence”, experts expressly feared that residues deposited within the frescoes by rinsing would react with airborne pollutants and moisture. The restorer Mirella Simonetti held one of AB57’s ingredients, bicarbonate of soda, to be an “extremely damaging” residue because, when combined with the sulphates of calcium and air-borne sulphuric anhydrites, it produces sodium sulphate – a whitish dust which corrodes the fresco and destroys its coloured surface. Simonetti also maintained that the use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) within the solvent gel had chemically altered the fresco by causing a “breakdown in the molecular structure [and] bringing about a disintegration [which] in turn causes the division of the components and the discohesion of the lime.” Once weakened in this fashion, the disintegration would continue – and “even water can favour such a process”. Simonetti’s alarm was later vindicated when, tests showed that the compound’s corrosive properties etched the surface of marble into irregular corrugations, scattering light and imparting a deceiving effect of brightness that provided more routes of ingress to airborne pollutants.

Fresco Painting and Its Known Enemies

It had long been recognised that air-borne sulphur attacks fresco. In 1884 the reverend J. A. Rivington explained in a paper delivered at the Society of Arts in London how air contaminated by coal and gas emissions destroys fresco: “The carbonate of lime is converted into the sulphate, breaking up the paint and becoming itself disintegrated in the process of change.” The notoriously contaminated air surrounding and invading the Sistine chapel contains sulphur dioxide from coal-burning, nitrous oxides from car exhausts and hydrogen chloride from incinerated plastics. When combined with rain or condensed water these substances produce sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids respectively, all fiercely corrosive. Water is brought into the Chapel by tourists in the form of perspiration and breathing vapour while breathing itself gives off carbon dioxide.

On 12 December 2012, Corriere della Sera reported: “‘Dust, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide are the great enemies of paintings’, Museum Director Antonio Paolucci told reporters in the Vatican, ‘so this threat is something we have to address. The five million tourists who visit the Sistine Chapel each year bring massive amounts of grime and humidity with them, and it is seriously damaging Michelangelo’s frescoes. So starting in the middle of 2013, every tourist will be thoroughly vacuumed, dusted, cleaned, and chilled before admission to reduce the amount of environmental pollution they cause.
‘On entering the chapel, each tourist will be required to pass through a hi-tech vacuum system to remove dust, fibres, skin flakes, hair and other tiny particles, before they are allowed to view the frescoes. At the same time, a special carpet will also clean their shoes, while side vacuums will cool their temperature, to reduce the heat and humidity that emanates from their bodies. The dirt and heat generated by the 20,000 bodies each day has caused grime to accumulate on the paintings, and a thick layer of dirt had to be scrubbed off of the Last Judgment two years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen again.’”

What Goes Round, Comes Round

We have been there before. In “Art Restoration” in 1993 we wrote: “A recent report commissioned by the Vatican on the Chapel’s microclimate noted that the very large numbers of tourists produce the following adverse effects: they carry in from the streets polluted dust and organic particles on their clothing and hair; their combined body heat raises the temperature by as much as 5°C; and they greatly increase the relative humidity of the air. The moisture and carbon dioxide given off by tourists combines to produce carbonic acid which dissolves the calcium carbonate of the fresco. Water vapours convert sulphur particles into sulphuric acid which also dissolves fresco. The body heat creates convective air currents which carry polluted particles up to the walls and ceilings. Water vapour can activate the traces of salt and detergent left behind after the cleaning with AB57.”

In 1981 Colalucci had equated the glue/size paints with “extraneous chemical substances” without which “and with the science we have today” he hoped “the frescoes will remain in good condition for a very long time”. As mentioned, he offered an assurance that he had left “a very thin film of dirt touching the paint surface with its varying ‘patina’. This fine layer of dirt acts as a form of protection to the paint.” As also mentioned, we now know that whatever Colalucci might have left behind performed no such service, and that dirt on frescoes is no protection from further accumulations of corrosive dirt.

Promises, Promises

There have been many unfounded assurances. In 1987 Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, assured readers in Apollo that, “The substances used for the cleaning…have been used successfully for over twenty years… their chemical action is known and stops once the process is finished…the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface”. Just months before in the Summer 1987 Art News, Summer 1987, the Moras themselves had claimed no more than that placing the solvents in a cellulose gel helped to “reduce penetration into the fresco”. In the summer 1987 Art News, the assurances were becoming more specific. M. Kirby Talley Jr., an independent consultant in fine art, interiors and art conservation, wrote:

In order to prevent the condensation of moisture on the surface of the fresco, the Vatican has already embarked on an extensive programme to control the micro-climate of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Camuffo of the University of Padua spent a year making detailed measurements of relative humidity, temperature and air movement. A climate-control system based on his findings, which will prevent the movement of air above the windows as well as filter it, is now being developed by Carrier-Delchi. Electrical heating coils, ‘A sort of giant electrical blanket,’ as Persegati called it, will be placed under the roof above the ceiling, and will help to maintain a steady temperature during the winter. A dirt absorbing carpet has already been installed on the stairs down to the chapel and on part of the floor inside. Carrier-Delchi is considering a wind shower to remove dust particles from people’s clothing before they enter the chapel. Low heat lamps that can be adjusted to the amount of natural light entering through the windows will further reduce the temperature.”

Synthetic Resins – On or Off?

Talley Jr. reported that Colalucci had assured him that Michelangelo had used no secco paint on the lunettes, and that while the synthetic resin B 72 had been used to seal the walls of the lunettes it had not been used to that purpose on the ceiling. Even the official apologias for B 72 were more disturbing than reassuring: “Like all restoration materials it has its good and its bad points”, Talley said. Frommel was quoted as saying “According to the critics B 72 is something which may become opaque in the future. Are the critics right when they say we don’t know what it will do? They say tests should have been made and then a long period of time should have been allowed to elapse before proceeding. Paraloid can close the surface to respiration. It can close the pores, and if that were to happen it might change the interior life of the fresco.” To this Talley gave voice to B 72’s champions. According to the Moras “If you don’t use Paraloid, what do you use? Organic resins and inorganic fixatives such as lime water, ethysilicates and barium hydroxide all have serious drawbacks. Of the synthetic resins the acrylics are the best, and of the acrylics Paraloid is the least bad.” Was the least bad, good enough for Michelangelo – and better than his own secco painting which had for centuries protected the fresco surfaces from airborne pollutants?

On this question, the Vatican’s accounts prove unsatisfactory and shifting. All that can be said safely is that B 72 was abandoned and not replaced at some point between 1986 and 1991, at which latter date Colaucci claimed “There was no final application to protect or saturate the painting”. This change of mind was defended in 1991: “Our decision not to apply a protective material derived from the awareness that any new material which is not homogeneous with the original components of the fresco will undergo rapid degradation, causing, in the best of cases, aesthetic damage.” This being so, we must expect some parts of the frescoes to deteriorate more rapidly than others – but how many? In 1991 Colaucci put B 72 applications at “lunettes 50 per cent, ceiling 3 per cent”. In 1993 (“Art Restoration” p. 120) we had noted that while protection of the frescoes was to depend on the thin layer of original dirt that Colalucci claimed to have left in place and on the above described plans to stabilise and purify the chapel’s microclimate: “When Michael Daley asked if the air-conditioning system would eliminate the great fluctuations triggered by tourists, he [Mancinelli] replied ‘No. It will reduce the peaks and the troughs but will not eliminate the problem entirely.’” Of course, at that date, as today, the problems could have been halved by halving the numbers of tourists. Then, as perhaps still is the case, on days when the Chapel was closed to visitors, visitor numbers to the Vatican museums fell by 60 per cent.

The Breach of Methodological Good Practice that Menaced Michelangelo’s Shading

In the execution of the cleaning, certain procedural lapses compounded the risks and dangers. Early in the programme (in 1981 when working on the lunettes), Colalucci had said that AB 57: “was created mainly for marble but the Moras experimented with it on fresco. It is like paste. It can be on for a minute or ten minutes. The effect varies with the amount of time it spends in contact with a surface. The danger is that if you leave it on a minute or two too long it will go beyond the foreign substances and start removing the paint. You can see little areas where I’ve applied AB57 in two or three stages. Each time I take it off well before it’s too late. Then I look at it and gauge how much more time it will need…Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work.”

Why, then, were the varying thicknesses of the (mis-designated) “foreign and extraneous substances” all given identical applications of two three minutes-long applications set twenty-four hours apart? Such an uniform treatment of so vast and varying a programme of painting seemed to breach conservation’s own ethics and “good practice”. As we had reported in “Art Restoration”:

Within four years, Colalucci had abandoned this control of the solvent by constant observation and timing. In its place a standardized procedure was adopted, described in the 1986 ‘General Report on the Lunettes’: ‘First application, three minutes followed by removal and washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application, three minutes followed by washing and leaving to dry as before’. These three-minute applications were said to have been ‘rigorously measured’. Colalucci explained the reason for the change of procedure: the size of the ceiling required that work be carried out by a team. Individual restorers, responding to the evidence of their own eyes, would draw different conclusions. Therefore, in order to obtain a ‘homogeneity of result’ – a ‘primary objective’ – they must be denied the opportunity to judge for themselves how long the solvent should remain in place. Solvent applications had to be predetermined, Colalucci felt, in order to avoid ‘either emotional involvement or complex mechanical manipulation on the part of the restorers’. When asked in 1985 at the Wethersfield Conference in New York why he did not adjust the timing to what his eyes were witnessing, he replied: ‘Because emotional or subjective conditions must not be permitted to intrude upon science.’ The scaffold, he added, did not permit stepping back to assess effects and the continuous bright lights of the Japanese film-makers ‘fatigued one’s eyes’. The activity of the film crews was itself a distraction as was also his having to entertain up to sixteen VIP visitors a day…” See Figs. 34 and 35.

Conservation Ethics and Showbiz Restorations

The inventors of AB57 held that cleaning should never be considered “entirely a technical matter…confined merely to the choice of solvent”. The restorer’s responsibility for the control of the solvent’s actions is absolute and should never be left to “depend on the natural uncontrolled action of the products” and must always depend on “the precise wish and aim of the restorer guided by his critical interpretation”. By failing to exercise control at all times, the restorer “deprives himself of the principal alarm signal when faced with new situations; he gives up looking ahead and allows the problem to resolve itself mechanically so that subsequently he can impose the result as an accomplished fact.”

By test-driving a new cleaning agent under television studio conditions in a constricted, over-crowded and art-politically febrile space, the Vatican restorers pioneered a new professional genre: conservation as both entertainment and professional swank. The combination of the Nippon Television Corporation sponsored showbiz and a provocatively radical restoration drew many protests. This spawned intensely propagandistic promotional razzmatazz, the unprecedented scale and character of which will be examined in Part III.

“The activity of restoration can be defined in terms of two overlapping headings, procedure and method. Procedure is fixed and invariable, and consists in the scientific planning and execution of the restoration project, regardless of the material involved. Method, however, is the department strictly of the action taken in the course of the restoration, and is therefore variable, subject to factors arising from the material, technique and state of conservation of the monument involved.
“The adoption of a procedure which governs the progress of the work is characteristic of modern restoration. Under the impetus of a marked development in technological expertise, modern restoration has extended its established and primary function of conservation for aesthetic ends to include a research capacity, directed towards the work of art considered as an inseparable duality, conceptual and material.
“In the past restoration practice aimed at cancelling out the effects of time and events upon the work of art, termed by Brandi comprehensively its historical aspect, absolute priority was given to its aesthetic aspect, conditioned of course by its contingent situation. The restoration of works of art was therefore entrusted to artists, who were free to introduce personal methods, often secret or private, consistent with the aim of returning the work to its pristine material state, but not necessarily to its original intended state.
“In the evolution of the ‘art’ of restoration, the laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures in the Vatican Museums has had a not insignificant role. Founded in 1992 by Biagio Biagetti according to the latest ideas, and subsequently provided with a Laboratory for Scientific Research, the institute is today directed by by Carlo Pietrangeli who in 1978 established its guidlines in Rules for the restoration of works of art.
“In June 1980 this laboratory, constitutionally responsible for the restoration of the pictorial patrimony of the Holy See, qualified and informed by its enormous experience, which goes back more than 50 years and has been constantly renewed both technically and in terms of personnel, undertook the most important task it had yet undertaken in its history, the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel…”
~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo’s Colours Rediscovered”, “The Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo Rediscovered”, London, 1986.

The restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was a venture that shook the very foundations of the art world more than any other single event has managed to do in the last quarter of a century.
“Promoted and conducted with rigorously conservative objectives, over the course of its execution the restoration program assumed an ever-growing significance in historical and critical terms – an importance that was foretold when the first patches were cleaned and was fully confirmed by the restoration of the Eleazar-Mathan lunette.”
~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo The Vatican Frescoes”, by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci, 1996.

…The intuition that the colours must have been quite different from those that could be seen can be found sporadically in the writings of the more perceptive scholars of Michelangelo, from [Charles Heath] Wilson to Biagetti and Wilde. But clear and conclusive evidence of the original colours was established for the first time in recent times by the extraordinary photographs of the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura, taken just before the restoration and published in a book of 1980, unfortunately in a small limited edition and now not widely seen. The eye of the camera, in itself much more acute than the human eye, and aided by much stronger light than is usually available in the Chapel, revealed beneath the dirt and deteriorated glue-varnish the tangible existence of of what the restoration today is gradually retrieving.
“Although the book with Okamura’s photographs and the restoration that is now proceeding came about independently and for different reasons, the two are complementary, and Okamura’s book is today a valuable record of what for centuries had masked the true nature of Michelangelo’s painting; if the cleaning had not gone ahead, it would have been the sole means by which to achieve a proper or effective analysis of his work…”
~ Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Michelangelo at Work”, “The Sistine Chapel Michelangelo rediscovered”, London, 1986.

Michael Daley

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Above, (top) Fig. 1: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl, detail.
Above, Fig. 2: Michelangelo’s Moses.
Evaluating restorations (or attributions) requires a clear appreciation of an artist’s most secure works and characteristics. Michelangelo’s phenomenally potent carved figures, such as his Moses (above), found parallel realisation in the figures he was compelled to paint on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as the Libyan Sibyl shown at Fig. 1 and below. In the reproduction of his Moses at Fig. 2, we see how (natural or artificial) light and shadows are trapped/made by the architectural projections. Within the constraining rectilinear spaces set by the architecture, the figure’s own component parts move and shift against one another so as to produce planar and volumetric dynamism and expressive anatomical torsion.
MICHELANGELO’S USE OF DRAPERY
The not-naturalistic drapery in the Moses complements and enhances the body’s deportment with its own autonomously animated structures and vitalising rhythms. The deeply undercut, shadow-producing drapery over Moses’s left thigh had found direct pictorial anticipations on the ceiling in the Libyan and Erythraean sibyls shown here. Michelangelo had discovered, as Leonardo had taunted, that a painter controls his own lighting and can (like an etcher) submit it to his own singular will, darkening here, highlighting there, shaping and moulding matter with form-describing tonal values and relationships. In Fig. 1, which is a fragment of a coloured painting reproduced in greyscale, we “see” a piece of sculpture – or strictly speaking, a sculpturally conceived figure that happens not have been made but was depicted pictorially with an imagined optimal lighting so as to render its forms with the fullest sculptural lucidity and force. Such was Michelangelo’s genius in these matters that the fragment from his Libyan Sybil might be thought the creative equal of a fragment of the Parthenon’s carved frieze.
SPOT THE ODD ONE OUT:
Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5.
Fig. 3 (above, top) is a fragment of the Libyan Sibyl’s drapery before restoration.
Fig. 4 (above, middle) is the same fragment after restoration.
Fig. 5 (above) is a fragment of an engraved copy of the Libyan Sibyl made in 1797 by a fine (Flaxmanesque) engraver, Tommaso Piroli.
Of the three images, the first is by Michelangelo as found before the last restoration. The second is the same fragment of the figure as it emerged after the last restoration. The third is the corresponding fragment of a copy showing the figure as it had survived for nearly three hundred years. We hold that the differences between the first and the second states constitute evidence of injury, and claim support for this reading in the third image here and in the images at Figs. 6, 7 and 8. As further corroboration, we show below how, in the wake of the restorations of the 1980s and 1990s, many similarly injured passages can be found throughout the ceiling.
The painting contained in the first image (at Fig. 3) had never been challenged or doubted as part of an entirely autograph work of Michelangelo. Never challenged, that is, until the beginning of the last restoration when the Vatican’s restorers advanced a claim that this figure, and all others on the ceiling, had been so deformed by dirt and successive layers of restorers’ varnishes as to constitute a corrupted and misleading Michelangelo. The true Michelangelo, it was contended, lay unrecognisably different under alien material accretions which, with the help of some very powerful chemicals-in-a-gel, would be dispersed – even though the resulting change of appearance in the paintings would in turn require that everything previously thought about the artist be overturned. Tragically, the Vatican authorities permitted this hubristic, artistically perverse and historically unsupported programme to proceed. That which had survived for nearly five hundred years in Fig. 1, was turned after two three minutes long chemical dousings into Fig. 2.
THE CHANGED CHARACTER OF THE DRAPERY
The pre-restored image showed drapery that was boldy massed, purposefully shaded and satisfyingly sculptural in its volumetric descriptions and compositional fluency. To educated eyes, its then appearance could only have been a product of artistry. It could not have been an accidental by-product of random accumulations of unequally disfigured accretions, as has been claimed in defence of all the restoration changes. The pre-restoration state, as is shown above, bore too close a family relation to Michelangelo’s carved sculptural forms for its authorship ever to have been in question. By comparison, the post-restoration image is weaker; its forms smaller; its tones consistently lighter. The surviving tonal modelling is more local to each piece of material, less broadly unified across incidents. It is thus weakening to the previously strong overall sculptural effects, spatially ambiguous, and more akin to shallow relief than free-standing sculpture. There is no historical corroboration for today’s appearance – it appears in no copies. All of which raises the question: “Why was the very design of Michelangelo’s work changed by this removal of a piece of drapery?”.
THE LOST SECTION OF DRAPERY
The large fold of drapery that hangs from the lower left leg no longer sweeps down gracefully from below the knee, as seen if Figs. 3 and 5, but emerges abruptly and uncomfortably at the shin. On stylistic grounds alone, the removed material cannot be said to have been an addition made by some other person, let alone by accretions. This section of pre-restoration drapery was entirely, seamlessly of a piece, and served a clear compositional purpose.
Above, Fig. 6. The Libyan Sibyl, as copied in 1797 by Tommaso Piroli. As well as giving the clearest account of the not-yet truncated drapery hanging from the left leg, Piroli (an engraver of antiquities) provides an elegant shorthand account of Michelangelo’s three principal zones of dark tone. The first, at the bottom between the legs, differentiates their positions in space vis-a-vis the viewer: the side of the more distant leg misses the strong light source (as indicated by its emphatically cast shadow) and is therefore optically subordinated by darkened tones. The arms and torso are relieved by dark tone over the drapery hanging from the table. The curving sweep of drapery on the right begins brightly at the top, as if caught by the light. This area of brightness relieves the darker shaded side of the arms and torso. It then darkens as it passes close to the Sibyl’s body before lightening again as it moves froward into the light that catches the left leg and foot.
Above, Figs 7 and 8: Two states of an anonymous 16th-century engraving.
Although the author of this copy (published in “La Sistina Riprododotta”, 1991, and here reversed) was not as fluent a draughtsman as Piroli, and took liberties with the architecture, on the two crucial issues of the right foot’s cast shadow and the shape and the extent of the hanging drapery at the raised left leg, the copy is entirely consistent with the later artist’s testimony. Thus, just as with Piroli two centuries later, we see that the drapery emerged below the knee and at an acute angle. It did not, as today, burst into view abruptly at a right angle from behind the shin, as left by the restorers. We can rule out the possibility that a change might have been made to Michelangelo’s drapery by a restorer even before this 16th-century engraving was made. The restorer known to have been called in during the 16th-century – Domenico Carnevale – did so in 1566. He made five repairs in total and all were made in buon fresco, not a secco. He did no work on the Libyan Sibyl. Thus, only Michelangelo could have amended his own buon fresco work on the Libyan Sibyl’s drapery with a secco painting – just as he can be seen to have done on the sybil’s right foot…which can also be seen to have been injured in the last restoration, at Figs. 11, 12 and 13.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10.
The legs of the Libyan Sibyl, as published in 1990 (left) and in the post-restoration state in 1992 (right). In Fig. 9 we see how before restoration the former design of the hanging drapery helped create a compositionally mediating, “fanning” movement between the position of the two legs, as had been recorded in the 16th and 18th-century copies shown above. Both copies show that, as before restoration, the wedge-shaped piece of hanging drapery ran into the shadowed zone that served to push back the right leg and give greater prominence the left leg.
THE MANGLED FOOT AND ITS DISAPPEARED SHADOW
Above, Figs. 11, 12 and 13.

This sequence records many alterations made in the Libyan Sybil’s right foot: before cleaning (top); after cleaning (middle); and after repainting (bottom). In fig. 11 we see a mini fanning movement in the three short dark accented folds at the ankle of the sybil’s right foot which have melted away in Fig. 12. We see also in Fig. 11 examples of what Alexander Eliot described as “Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles”. Once again, Michelangelo’s habit of placing a dark shadow beind the lit edge of a form and a light ground behind its shaded side was evident here in his treatment of the strategically dramatic arched foot.
UNDOING AND (PARTIAL) REDOING

This sequence also comprises a tacit acknowlegement of error on the part of the restorers. Evidence is here present not just of the loss of the foot’s cast shadow (as also with the Jonah below) but even of its anatomical credibility. Michelangelo had repositioned this foot, scraping away one part and adding another. The cleaning undid this revision, and thereby produced (uniquely in Michelangelo’s oeuvre) a human heel that was not rounded but that came to a point, as in Fig. 12. We questioned this transformation (and that of the Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot, shown below) to Fabrizio Mancinelli, the co-director of the restoration, when he gave a talk on the restoration at the Courtauld Institute, London. Later, on visiting the Chapel we discovered that the heel had become rounded again if not entirely whole, as seen at Fig. 13. Clearly, if the repainted addition is now correct, it should never have been removed in the first place.

Above, Fig. 14: An article in The Independent of 22 November 1991, which first showed the Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot as it emerged after restoration.
Above, Figs. 15 and 16: The Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot before cleaning (left) and after cleaning and restoration (right). Note, in addition to the mangled foot, the changes made to the forms and the colours of the drapery. We assume that no one believes that the foot today is as Michelangelo intended it to be left. We have found deafening the collective silence of art historians and art critics on this grotesque blunder. Perhaps some think that such sacrifices of authentic painting are a price worth paying to get at brighter colours?
Above, Fig. 17: The Libyan Sibyl and the Prophet Daniel, before restoration
Note how effectively Michelangelo had simulated monumental figures set within palpable architecturally bounded spaces. On the left, we see the Libyan Sibyl (discussed further below) and the Prophet Daniel. Note particularly with what force the drapery over Daniel’s right shoulder cascades and twists, and how emphatically it captures a deep dark shadow next to his right side.
Above, Figs. 18 and 19: The Prophet Daniel, before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
In this pairing, we see one of most massive destructions of a Michelangelo a secco revision. Once again, corroboration of the pre-restoration state – and disqualification of the post-restoration state – is found in early copies of the figure, as shown below.
Above, Figs. 20 and 21. Engraved copies of the Prophet Daniel.
These two copies made in the 1790s by artists working in very different graphic styles (in tones in the case of Giovanni Volpato, left, and with lines with Tommaso Piroli, right) both testify to the then survival of Michelangelo’s unprecedented pictorial chiaroscuro – his emphatic placement of lights against darks which had so struck and thrilled his contemporaries.
When we first reminded the restoration’s supporters of Michelangelo’s original pictorial schema and drew attention to the corroborating copies, Nicholas Penny, for one, rushed to be dismissive, saying of the copies that “none of them support the claim Daley makes”, and added, “I am surprised to hear that the ceiling was ‘praised precisely for its unprecedented chiaroscuro’.” In the 11 February 1993 London Review of Books Dr Penny had recited the then Standard Defence For The Restoration:
Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveal a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better preserved 15th-century panel paintings.”
The operative words were “now that it has been cleaned”. While it is true that Michelangelo’s biographers had suffered the handicap of having to respond to the ceiling when it was freshly painted and not yet “cleaned”, it was remiss of Penny not to have noticed that none of Michelangelo’s contemporaries had spoken of dazzling colours or likened his great fresco cycle to 15th-century panel paintings. The truth is that Michelangelo had shown his figures and his fictive architecture as if placed in a brilliant “cinematographer’s” light – why else, how else, could so many of his feet have originally sported such dramatically cast shadows on the ceiling’s illusionistic mini projected “floors”, and so many of his figures have cast such dramatic shadows onto the walls?
EVEN GOD WAS AT RISK FROM THE CLEANERS
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: God (detail) in Michelangelo’s panel showing the bestowing of life upon Adam, before cleaning (top), after cleaning (above).
If old pictures were simply being cleaned and not injured, their ranges of tonal values would be extended and not diminished, as seen here. For example, in the bottom left-hand corner what was graduated, nuanced, modelled, has become uniform, flatter, more “on the surface”. The ridges of drapery which formerly wrapped round the shoulder, now break off short. The folds themselves have become simpler in drawing, less expressive in shading. Lines of under-drawing emerge more strongly, while crisp tonal demarcations blur. Individual hairs get lost. If Michelangelo really had left his painting as in this “cleaned” state, what might have improved the drawing and modelling to the degree seen in the uncleaned state through all the (alleged) foreign accretions and filth?
Above, Fig. 24. This pre-restoration photograph shows the crucial junction between the Last Judgement and the ceiling. The zone contains some of Michelangelo’s most brilliant figural inventions, of which the commanding central Jonah earned the greatest admiration when the ceiling was unveiled. Note the general dispositions of tonality, the relative lightness of the illusionistic compartmentalising architectural elements, and the then legibility of the shadow cast by Jonah’s left foot – which foot, curiously, touches the same architectural arch as the foot of the Libyan Sibyl, above and to the right of Jonah.
Above, Fig. 25: Jonah’s left foot, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right).
While no one enthused over Michelangelo’s colours, everyone marvelled at his unprecedented use of light and shade on the ceiling. Among them, Condivi thought the Jonah the “most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of light and shadow, the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eye, and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.” Vasari asked: “Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which bends in the opposite direction; and vanquished by the art of design, with its lights and its shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.” [Emphases added.] Note carefully what was being said at the time: by his drawing and his use of lights and darks, Michelangelo had made surfaces which were actually advancing towards the viewer seem to recede. What was not said, pace Mancinelli, was that Michelangelo’s colours had been used “pure” and that, as such, they had played “a primary structural role”. No authority then existed for the restorers’ recent trading of those impeccably accredited lights and darks for today’s heightened colours.
Above, Fig. 26. Four copies of Jonah, as published in “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” in 1993.
Most certainly, no authority existed for removing the shadow cast by Jonah’s foot. Countless copies over the centuries had recorded it. Giulio Clovio, in his copy shown here in the top left-hand corner, also recorded (in the bottom corners) parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but destroyed before 1536 to prepare a continuous surface for the Last Judgement.
Above, Fig. 27: A 19th century engraved copy of a now lost drawn record of the two sacrificed lunettes.
The copy of a copy of the sacrificed lunettes shows precisely “the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago”. Its testimony specifically contradicts the restorers’ claim that the suggestive painting was “essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” The dramatic shading in this record captures the decisively drawn shadow at Jonah’s left foot, as glimpsed at the top left. Fabrizio Mancinelli’s claim that the lunettes had erroneously “been interpreted for centuries by scholars as chiaroscuri with light and shade distributed so that the figures seem to be emerging from the darkness”, flouted Paolo Giovio’s 1525 testimony that Michelangelo had “used a gradually diminishing light to suggest some figures in the distance, almost hidden…”
Above, Fig. 28: A lunette figure before (left) and after (right) restoration. This was one of three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes published by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti in the December 1989 Oggi e Domani. That there was much surface disfigurement on the lunettes is not in dispute. Crocetti had seen for himself after years on the scaffolds that the effects of smoke varied by location within the Chapel and that the lunettes had been disproportionately affected because of their position at the junctions between the walls and ceiling. The central question in the restoration generally, as here, is why previously evident artistic features (shadows, folds of drapery and so forth) disappeared along with the dirt through which they had formerly been visible? How, for example, could the left thigh of this figure have been perceived before restoration with a light upper surface and a darker side surface – and why did that tonal distinction disappear?
Above, Fig. 29: An engraved copy of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl made in the 1570s by Giorgio Ghisi. Here we see that shadows that disappeared in the last cleaning had been recorded within sixty years of the painting and therefore could not have been products of later accretions. It has sometimes been suggested that the testimony of engraved copies is not reliable because engravers exagerated tonal effects. Ghisi produced five other major plates of the prophets and sibyls (and of their surrounding figures). Like his Erythraean Sybil above, all showed a strongly dramatic use of shading that was still to be found in the figures themselves until the restoration. If Ghisi had exaggerated, what had he been exaggerating at a time when soot and restorers’ alleged varnishes had yet to impart their (Mancinelli-attributed) chiaroscuro-esque effects? Had Ghisi and other early copyists like Giulio Clovio collectively anticipated dramatic effects that Time and Accident would bestow centuries later?
Above, Fig. 30: The Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning.
Note the many correspondences of lighting and shading between the engraving and the photograph four centuries later. In both, the Sybil’s head casts a shadow onto the architecture. In both, the face’s lit profile is thrown into relief by background shadow. In both, the deeply undercut ‘U’ shaped fold of drapery that runs from the right thigh begins in the light but sinks progressively into a shadow which merges with the shadow that the figure casts onto the architecture.
Above, Figs. 31 and 32. The head of the Erythraean Sibyl before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right), showing catastrophic losses of modelling and shading. Note here the particulary emphatic and successful use of the tonal convention of relieving light contours against dark grounds, and vice versa, so as to deploy the most sculpturally expressive range of half-tones in between.
Above, Fig. 33: This (rotated) view of the ceiling in which the vertical wall appears in the bottom left corner shows the complicated curved geometries on which Michelangelo’s images were painted and the curious way in which the shadow-casting feet of Jonah and the Libyan Sibyl touch the same piece of curving architectural moulding.
Michelangelo’s task in designing and executing such a complex array of figures in so precise an “architectural” context was immensely difficult. In this respect, it would be less than human not to feel some sympathy for the restorers whose handicaps were compounded by the decision to allow the sponsors (the Nippon Television Corporation) to film the entire operation from the scaffold. In addition to the TV crews, other photography was permitted as part of the restoration’s promotion in the media.
In one specialised respect, photographs that catch restorers at work can illuminate restoration proceedures to a degree rarely encountered in offical presentations.
Above, Fig. 34: The Libyan Sibyl during cleaning.
This photograph, of a restorer being filmed at close quarters while working on the Libyan Sibyl, was reproduced across two pages of a 1992 book “Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel” by Robin Richmond, a painter who was supportive of the restoration. It shows that the figures were being cleaned first and separately from the backgrounds. A slight overlapping of the cleaning onto the figures’ dark green “relieving” background has introduced a light green halo-effect. The difference between the light green ‘halo’ and the adjacent dark green between the figures indicates the magnitude of the reductions of tonal values that took place in the shaded zones throughout the cleaning. As Crocetti had observed, Michelangelo had used his size or glue painting most of all in these zones. Wilson, testified that he had done so with a finely ground black pigment.
Above, Fig. 35: The Libyan Sibyl during cleaning.
Over the years, many excellent photographic records of major restorations have appeared in National Geographic. The December 1989 issue carried an article (“A Renaissance for Michelangelo”) which contained the stunning photograph above by Adam Woolfit (here in greyscale for comparative purposes). This photograph records the cleaning as it approached the draperies over the Libyan Sibyl’s legs. The halo effect seen at Fig. 25 had by then disappeared along with the removal of almost all of the dark green background toning. Only a small rectangle of the former dark paint on the background remained, temporarily attached to the bottom of the Sibyl’s left upper arm. Woolfit eloquently captures the extremely bright artificial television lighting under which the restorers worked, and, most valuably of all, an “in-between” state when the incoherences that emerge in the stripping-down of paintings have yet to receive restorers’ tidying and patching-up with the paint brush (-or, in restoration trade posh, “reintegration”) .
Above, Fig. 36: The Libyan Sibyl as published in 1990.
Above, Fig. 37: The Libyan Sibyl as published in 2010.
The transformation during restoration was immense. In 1986 Mancinelli claimed that Michelangelo had used his colours “constantly pure” and that they had served “a primary structural role” enabling him to “abandon almost altogether traditional chiaroscuri modelling”. The following photographs chronicle the swift demise of Michelangelo’s nearly five hundred years old chiaroscuri.
Above (top), Fig. 38, the torso of the Libyan Sibyl, as published in 1904 and, Fig. 39, in 1996.
Within the characteristically restoration-compressed range of tones, the boy’s hair, which previously was light and blonde, relieved against a blackish green ground (as seen in Figs. 36 and 38), is now darker than the radically “cleaned” light green background drapery. If we consider the whole figure before cleaning (as at Figs. 17, 33 and 36) we see a consistent and dramatic light falling on it from the left. As well as casting the strong shadow from the right foot, that light illuminated the left side of the sibyl and the right-hand side of the architecture. The sibyl’s head had a lit side and shadowed side and, just like that of the Erythraean Sybil, each side was set off by a tonally contrasted background. Similarly, the brightly lit left arm was strongly relieved by the very dark green drapery, while the shaded right arm was thrown into relief against the light stonework…and so forth. After a cleaning, we would expect Fig. 39 to be like Fig. 38 in its values only more so with lighter lights and darker darks. Instead, while Fig. 39 is now certainly cleaner looking and tidier, by comparison with its former self, it resembles an early state of an etching before the dark tones and blacks have been worked up – rather as may be seen at Figs. 7 and 8.
Above, Fig. 40. The Libyan Sibyl’s head, as published in 1966, before restoration. Note the progressions of tones, and the brilliant highlight at the shoulder.
Above, Fig. 41: The testimony of Woolfit’s 1989 photograph (detail) of the cleaning in progress.
We see at this stage of restoration that along with the removal of the glue-based paint on the background green draperies, the formerly clear and precisely established contours of the left upper arm have been disrupted by the emergence of dark patches of sketchy, inconsistent and disconnected outlining. Given that these arbitrary irregularities are not present in either the pre- or the post-cleaning states, we must consider how they arrived and how they were persuaded to depart.
Above, (top) Fig. 42, the Sibyl’s forearm, as seen in 1904. Above, (middle) Fig. 43, the Sibyl’s forearm, as seen during cleaning in 1989. Above, Fig. 44, the Sibyl’s forearm as seen after cleaning and repainting.
At Fig. 43, once again, along with the removal of the former dark toning material behind the arm, we see remarkable changes to the tonal modelling of the arm itself and to its previously lucid, now erratic contours. We would claim that such changes cannot be seen as anything other than restoration-induced injuries:
1) It is inconceivable that Michelangelo would ever have been content to leave a limb in such a condition. (Think of the Virgin’s arms in the Doni Tondo.) The massively intrusive overdrawing of the thick bar-like contour of the thumb and forefinger seen after cleaning at Fig. 43 is inexplicable except as preliminary underpainting. (Remember that Crocetti complained of AB 57 having penetrated the frescoes to a depth of half centimetre.)
2) It is inconceivable that Michelangelo would have depicted the left contour of the forearm being ruptured by the intrusion of the edge of the giant book’s cover board that rests on the top of the draped table behind the sibyl, as seen at Fig. 43 (and as such, exclusively by courtesy of Woolfit’s photograph, so far as we know). Such an illogical intersecting relationship might have appealed to Picasso in his analytical cubist phase, but it could hardly have done so to Michelangelo. How, then, did it arise and how did it disappear? Have any accounts been published of the emergence and swift extinguishing of this extraordinary pictorial phenomenon? Has film of the cleaning of this arm been broadcast?
3) Finally, it is of course, inconceivable that had Michelangelo left the forearm drawn and modelled as seen in 1989 at Fig. 43, that subsequent accumulations of soot and glues could have sufficiently remedied his defects of drawing so as to bring the work to the condition seen in 1904 at Fig. 42. Clearly, the restorers themselves did not accept the emerging injuries to the arm to be a fair recovery of some original and authentic condition, because it is apparent from Fig. 44 that steps were taken to paint out some of the more glaringly incongrous defects. But who was the author of the “corrections” to the very defects that the restoration unleashed? Who should be accredited for authorship of the hybrid, revised arm as seen at Fig. 44?
Above, Fig. 45. In December 1989 National Geographic published this beautifully balanced record (here flipped) by Victor R. Boswell, Jr. of the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as finished by Michelangelo. Springing from the centre top of the not-yet-cleaned Last Judgement we see Jonah around whom congregate, in the last section of the ceiling that Michelangelo painted, some of the artist’s most miraculously inventive figures set in their fictive temple-in-the-sky. For a little longer this section retained the majesty and mystery of the infinite space and dark depths that had survived for nearly half a millennium.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


17th December 2012

“Pick Up A Pencil”

The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]

A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:

…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present [1]. Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” [2]. But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.

The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.

Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” [3]. What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer [4]. This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.

Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.

A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.

Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.

To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).

To express the difference in another way:

Scene = Photograph

(Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting

Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.

Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).

The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.

The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) [5]. In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” [6]. He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.

By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.

Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.

Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter [7]. The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.

The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).

Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.

But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.

Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.

ENDNOTES:

1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456
The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013
2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012
3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23
4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24
5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix
6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229
7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012

Gareth Hawker

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Above, the covers of the new AWUK Journal. In 2013 two further James Beck Memorial Lectures will take place.
In New York in April, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, will speak on Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art.
In London, in October, Jacques Franck, the Leonardo specialist and Permanent Consulting Expert to the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, will speak on Painterly Practice and its Light on the Old Masters.
(For information on these events, or on Artwatch membership details, please contact the Membership and Events Secretary, Helen Hulson – hahulson@googlemail.com.)
In the Daily Telegraph Magazine on 15 December, Georgia Dehn reported a visit to the animation studios of a new animated film, The Snowman and the Snowdog, based on Raymong Briggs’s The Snowman:
“…a team of about 40 people is busy colouring in with Caran d’Ache pencils…Eight people who worked on the original film are working on The Snowman and the Snowdog. ‘We had to get them out of retirement…A lot of the others hadn’t used drawing skills like this for years because now they are all drawing on tablets straight into the computer – and we’ve trained some new people as well’, [Camilla] Fielding says. Lupus [Films] has employed 78 renderers in total…As a lead animator, [Pete] Western was responsible for four ‘key’ drawings per second, which plot out the main action of the shot. An animation assistant – or ‘inbetweener’ – does the remaining eight drawings per second to fill the gaps…’ We had a debate about all the programmes you can use to make something seem handmade’ [Joanna Harrison, the art director, co-writer and and co-owner of Lupus Films] adds, ‘but I think if you go to all the effort of getting something to look as if you have picked up a pencil, why not just pick up a pencil?'”
Above, Fig. 1: Photograph by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve 1854. Tracing by Delacroix.
Delacroix made a tracing, perhaps from the back of the photograph held up against a window. I flipped the photograph horizontally to make comparison easier. I placed a semi-transparent image of the drawing on top of the image of the photograph. The lines correspond with the painting almost exactly, thus confirming that the drawing was in fact a tracing, not simply an accurate drawing. Tracing may seem to be a task which is almost mechanical, requiring little mental input, but when the task really is done by a machine – a computer – the tracing is far less informative than the one made by a human.
For example, Delacroix has outlined the arms and hands in a way which is impossible for the computer. The computer divides the image into areas which are equal in tonal value, then places a line around these, whereas the human can discern the meaning that these tonal areas have structurally, even when they are the same in tone value as adjacent areas. For instance, the arms and some parts of the costume are clearer in the drawing than in the photograph. In the tracing made by the computer some of these lines are missing altogether.
Above, Fig. 2: Standing man looking to the right. Drawing by Delacroix.
This pairing of photograph and drawing presents a rare opportunity to view exactly the same photograph as a great artist did when he made his drawing. We can compare the analysis which he made with the analysis which we might make. It is as if Delacroix had constructed the figure out of egg-shaped lumps of clay, which he pressed into shape to conform to the structure of the body; but he has not pressed and smoothed to such an extent that the original eggs become invisible.
After a few days training, most 10 year old children would be able to draw more accurately than this, in the sense of making an outline which resembles a tracing; but accuracy of this kind was not of primary importance to Delacroix. His outline forms a clearer description of a three-dimensional construction than a tracing would have done. In some ways it is harder to draw like this from a photograph than from life. In life the model and the artist move slightly, which makes the construction easier to see and to draw.
Above, Fig. 3: Heads by Memling and Stieglitz.
On the left a detail from a portrait of a man by Memling, the “first photographer”, according to Alfred Stieglitz; and, on the right, a detail from a portrait by Stieglitz. The comparison is not on a perfectly equal basis, because the subject of the Stieglitz is a woman (Georgia O’Keeffe) but it was the closest I could find which might bear comparison with the Memling.
Notice how the painting clarifies the structure of the head, while the photograph does not. It would be easier to make a sculpture based on the Memling than on the Stieglitz. Even a very exact copy of a photograph shows some kind of analysis (although it may be of a poor quality).
Above, Fig. 4 Nude drying herself by Degas.
Degas may well have taken this photograph at about the same time as he made the painting. This does not necessarily mean that he worked from the photograph. Quite often painters take photographs of the subjects they paint, only to have historians jump to the conclusion that they must have painted from the photographs. (An historian did this with my work on a couple of occasions. He suspected me of hiding my modus operandi, even though I was quite happy to point out paintings of mine which I really had painted from photographs).
This comparison shows the type of departure Degas would have made from a literally accurate tracing. In the computer tracing, the form of the model is difficult to discern. The painting contains about the same number of lines or edges as the computer tracing, but Degas’ lines give a clearer idea of the model’s shape.
Those who believe that the camera is a tool just like pencils and brushes tend to think that analysing a scene is a mechanical process, done equally well by a machine as by a human. That is a fallacy, as this comparison shows. The translation of a scene into a painting is not a mechanical process: it involves making choices – choices which are different from the mechanical ones which might be made by a computer.
Above, Fig. 5 Kneeling woman by Delacroix.
It is possible to see exactly where Delacroix has departed from literal accuracy. In its place he has provided some clarification of the three-dimensional structure of the model, though not as successfully as in the previous drawing (Fig.2).
Delacroix has brought to the photograph his knowledge of the figure, and how its parts fit together. Note, for example, how the small of the back links the back with the hips, something which is almost invisible in the photograph.
Even so, he seems to have had difficulty with some of the forms. The position of the woman’s shoulder-blade, for example, is not clearly expressed, and in many places the shading is not very informative about the construction. Compare this with Figs. 2, 6 and 7, all of which are better drawn in this respect.
These are the sort of deficiencies which one frequently sees in the drawings which students make in life classes. Even a great artist like Delacroix could sometimes make drawings which fell below his customary high standard.
Above, Fig. 6 Drawing of a seated man by Delacroix.
Notice how Delacroix has outlined the volumes, rather than making the equivalent of a tracing. Given the task of constructing the figure out of pieces of plasticene, the drawing would explain where to put them better than would the photograph.
Delacroix has found a clear place for the ridge of the shoulder blade and the muscles on the man’s side, all of which link together logically; but he seems to have lost his way along the spine. It almost looks as if he has introduced a distant arm behind the man’s back.
This illustrates the sort of intellectual exertion which is needed when making a drawing or a painting (and when viewing one). The drawing informs the viewer about Delacroix’s analytical thinking (whether of high quality or low), while the photograph does not.
Above, Fig. 7 Delacroix (1798 – 1863), Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (detail).
Photograph by courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Analysis has formed the main topic under discussion so far, but this example illustrates its complement, synthesis – drawing from memory and imagination. The approach to drawing is similar. Delacroix has drawn lines around volumes, and they represent equivalent volumes in the subject. But while a drawing from life or a photograph may be checked against the scene to see whether it is a reasonable summary (Fig. 6), the construction of an imaginary scene may be checked only in so far as it strikes the imagination of the viewer.
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17 August 2011

From Annigoni to Banksy: restorers’ crimes against art and graffitist’s crimes against architecture

In cyber-space, a thousand people a day ask: “Is graffiti an art form or a crime?” Edgar Degas, distraught at the handiwork of picture restorers at the Louvre, once threatened to write a pamphlet of protest that would be “a bomb”. Nearly a century later in Britain, a royal portraitist similarly distraught at the actions of restorers, painted a protest on the doors of the National Gallery. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker, taking graffiti as an art form, examines both the motives and the proclaimed “ethical codes” of those who deface/defile buildings and public spaces, and, the sometimes morally ambivalent responses of the public to such actions.

Gareth Hawker writes:

Colin Martindale developed a theory about the way in which art forms evolve. If he is going to get a place in the history books, each artist must outdo his predecessor. He must produce something more exciting; he must strike the imagination more forcibly. Martindale traced this line of development in many areas, not only in painting and in poetry, where one might expect it, but in the development of gravestones in New England and even in the writing of scientific papers. People seem to crave novelty and thrills. So it should come as no surprise to see a similar pressure at work in yet another art-form, that of criminal damage.

When the form was new, it was easy to outdo predecessors, who had been limited to paint-brushes, chalk and charcoal. The spray-can revolutionised graffiti. Simple slogans could be written with great speed. A tradition emerged. This tradition developed rapidly and soon came to what may be termed its academic stage, where rules were formulated which became widely recognised and accepted amongst practitioners.

I learnt from a television programme that the rules were as follows:
1) The paint cans must be stolen (‘nicked’).
2) The paint must be applied freehand (i.e. without stencils).
3) The surface must be hard to get to – the work must demonstrate that a logistical challenge has been overcome. The artist must show that he is a daring sort of character.
4) The artist should break the law. He should not have permission to spray the surface, whether a wall or the side of an underground train.
5) The work should not incorporate another artist’s work.
6) Painting over another artist’s work may be acceptable, but is generally considered to show “disrespect” and is likely to be frowned on. (The fact that the graffiti artist is himself showing disrespect to the wider community does not seem to figure in these considerations.)

The main purpose initially was to mark out and lay claim to a territory. (“Like a dog pissing on a lamp-post”). The placing of an elaborate signature (tag) could demonstrate that an area was now controlled by the graffiti writer and his pals, not by the police or by the local community. The cleaning off of graffiti was a vital element in the “zero tolerance” approach which police adopted in New York, and which ultimately proved successful in reducing the number of murders in that city. This aggressive cleaning made it clear that the police and the local community now controlled the area, not the graffiti writers and other hoodlums.

However the art form did continue to develop elsewhere. Artists had to find ways in which to make their productions more arousing. In Paris one man ["Blek le Rat"] started to use stencils. This meant he could prepare relatively complicated images at home, in the safety of his own studio, and then use his stencils on site in order to apply complicated images with extreme rapidity. This meant his images were far more interesting to look at than the simple lines and colours which had been used previously.

When Banksy copied this approach in the UK it incensed traditionalists. He was cheating. This is similar to the outcry when Caravaggio started to use big contrasts of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His pictures were more eye-catching than anything before, but the big contrasts of tone made it impossible for the viewer to see the construction of the figures as easily as in previous work. In art there is rarely a gain in one aspect of style without a loss in another. In the case of graffiti art, the gain in recognisability, complexity, humour and wit was matched by an equivalent loss in rhythm, clarity and spontaneity.

Banksy seems to have broken all the rules:
1 His paint is not always stolen (‘nicked’).
2 He uses stencils (cheating).
3 Although he does paint illegally, his work is worth so much that some councils protect it with perspex. As a quasi-acceptable part of the local community, he becomes unacceptable amongst the traditional graffiti writers. In practice, his work is hardly illegal at all.
4 By using stencils he reduced the amount of time he would have had to spend on site if he were to produce an equally complicated image. He was playing safe, not taking as much risk as his predecessors.
5 His work is collected by hedge-fund managers and celebrities who pay high prices. These new clients are the very people whom graffiti was originally meant to scare. Pleasing them represents a complete failure according to the old standards.
6 He partially painted over the work of a predecessor, a classic work of the genre. This shows total disrespect and is extremely offensive to traditionalists. (They seem to see no irony in their position. They are vandals who are furious to see their work vandalised by another vandal. They feel proud to break rules, but hate someone who breaks even more rules than they do. It is an example of very strict honour amongst thieves.)

Graffiti artists are prosecuted from time to time: some of their greatest works are destroyed. Why should Banksy be allowed to get away with it? The man in Camden whose task it is to decide what should be removed and what should be allowed to remain, said he has to make a judgement about how far the graffiti “adds value”. In other words, if the work was by Banksy it might be worth thousands of pounds, but if by another artist, it might be worth less than nothing. It may be worth spending money to get rid of it.

The arbiter in Camden wisely kept away from a discussion about whether graffiti was art. As Gombrich pointed out, many unproductive discussions about the definition of art may be avoided if one substitutes for “art” the word, “skill” – which is the original meaning of the word “art”. The man in Camden has to think about money, not philosophy.

Banksy seems to get away with it because his works are like newspaper cartoons, they raise a brief smile. People seem to be able to accept a great deal as long as there is some humour involved. How far will the public allow this sort of thing to go? Witty old criminals appear on chat shows on the radio, as if they are lovable old rogues, even though they have been convicted of torture and murder. Presumably the same spirit applies to graffiti. People will forgive a rich man many things, particularly if he makes them laugh and is not too close to home. He can get away with a lot more than a poor man who is boring and lives next door.

What would you do if Banksy sprayed your wall? Naturally you would want to cash in, just as if someone stole your expensive paintings you would be prepared to pay a ransom to get them back. But this would only encourage other graffiti artists to paint other people’s walls, and other thieves to steal yet more paintings. Is it reasonable to let a criminal off just because he makes you smile and because you might profit from his crime?

Not all of us find the jokes very funny anyway. I myself like plain old walls undistorted by graffiti. The brick walls seen from the train on the way into Liverpool Street Station used to have a lovely colour and patina – a sombre grandeur. Their intact surface was ruined by graffiti. This was eventually painted over in one solid dense colour. This is better than graffiti, but its surface is dull and unresponsive to the light compared to that of the old brickwork. Cleaning off graffiti can never bring back the original surface. “Something is always lost,” as Nicholas Penny once said of cleaning paintings at the National Gallery (where he is currently in charge).

If the issues are serious, it could be argued that breaking the law can be morally justifiable. When, in 1970, Annigoni wrote MURDERERS on the front of the National Gallery, he was not laying claim to territory, nor was he making a joke. He was trying to draw attention to the destruction wrought inside that building. His protests, and those of other eminent artists, had been ignored and he was desperate. And again his protest met with silence. Annigoni’s graffito had failed. The destruction continued, as the gallery’s own before and after restoration photographs demonstrate.

(For the artist’s earlier, entirely law-abiding but unavailing protest – Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in The Times, 14 July 1956 – see the “Appendix” of our 20 April post.)

Gareth Hawker

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Fig. 1, above: A “Banksy” sold in 2008 for £228,000.
Fig. 2, above: Pietro Annigoni, “Queen Elizabth II”, 1956
Fig. 3, above: Guard by Banksy.
Fig. 4, above: Classic subway spray-can work. Rome 2006.
Fig. 5, above: One of dozens which appear in London.
Fig. 6, above: Brickwork, before cleaning.
Fig. 7, above: Brick work, after cleaning.
Fig. 8, above: Gold Face graffiti faile paste up in Leake Street.
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